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International relations

Why China wants the US in Asia

In August, just ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the U.S., Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is also running in his party's presidential primaries, raised eyebrows when he claimed that "under Xi Jinping's rule, China has intensified its campaign to push the U.S. out of Asia."

     Rubio's position echoes that of some influential strategic thinkers, most notably John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago.

     Certainly, Beijing's Asia policy under Xi has been more assertive, but is China's goal to push the U.S. out of Asia?

     The answer is a clear no.

     In the American discourse, two reasons are cited to explain why China seeks to push the U.S. out of the region.

     First, as Chinese power has grown, nationalism compels Beijing to pursue such a policy.

     Second, China's strategic preferences reside in an Asia free from U.S. influence.

     In either version of this story, if the U.S.'s relative decline does not cause it to leave the region voluntarily, China is alleged to be willing to take the necessary measures to weaken, and ultimately expel, the U.S.

     The sentiment underpinning these views is strong; the logic is not.

     There are compelling reasons to believe the Chinese government has much more to lose than gain from U.S. retrenchment from Asia, and in practice, will only reluctantly accept such a development were it to become a fait accompli.

     First, if the U.S. were to make serious retrenchment preparations, some of Washington's regional allies and friends -- Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and perhaps Taiwan -- would surely improve their conventional military capabilities, possibly even securing advanced missile defense technology. One or two may even acquire a nuclear deterrent if the U.S. were to follow through on retrenchment.

     It is difficult to see how any of these developments improves China's national interests.

     In fact, they significantly degrade China's security, seriously complicating Beijing's options on the Korean Peninsula as well as its relationships with Japan, India, Taiwan and the Southeast Asian states.

     A second reason has to do with China's unwillingness to assume the mantle of regional leadership during a period of instability.

     Contrary to the claims of some prominent international relations scholars such as David Kang of the University of Southern California, it is highly unlikely that a China-dominated Asia would either be stable or welcomed by the majority of Asian states.

     Indeed, the opposite case is highly plausible, with Asian states forming exclusive intraregional alliances and seeking security guarantees from extraregional actors.

     Chinese decision-makers are practitioners of realpolitik, know their regional history and therefore understand this point.

     Can the Chinese nevertheless impose order on an unstable regional environment? Perhaps. But it would be a challenging task, and one they can be expected to avoid rather than embrace.

     If China's Asia policy is not about pushing the U.S. out of Asia, then what is going on?

     China's Asia policy is a mix of business as usual, standard great power politics and free-riding.

     On the Korean and Taiwan issues, a careful analysis of China's record since the end of the Cold War suggests that the Chinese position has actually been essential in supporting the status quo.

     Moreover, while differences with the U.S. on these issues are real, they also have been manageable.

     On Beijing's admittedly extensive and contested territorial claims in the South and East China seas, specialists debate whether the Chinese claim that they are defending their sovereignty is a defensive one, or a simple case of aggression.

     Regardless of where one stands in this debate, let's be honest with ourselves.

     Given its great power status, the final solution to this issue will have to, in some measure, incorporate the concerns of a rising China. To expect otherwise is a delusion.

     For the foreseeable future, the Chinese would prefer to free-ride on the many benefits of U.S. regional hegemony, rather than expend resources on reconstructing and maintaining Asia's regional order.

     A wise U.S. would recognize this point and incorporate it in its Asia policy and dealings with China.

     Beijing's dependence on America's regional presence provides Washington with leverage to achieve specific policy outcomes more in line with its preferences than China's.

     Thus, it is simply an example of bad futurology to forecast a 21st century Asia where the Chinese purposefully seek to push the U.S. out of the region.

     Certainly, it would be a mistake to assume that such an outcome is inevitable and that the Chinese would welcome it.

     We should keep this in mind the next time a presidential candidate makes these claims.

Nicholas Khoo teaches in the department of politics at the University of Otago in New Zealand. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and East Asian security.

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