What would a Chinese strategy of restraint look like?
What if China is not a rising power on course to displace the United States as the world’s leading power, but a plateauing power. In other words, what if China has peaked — what if the economic, demographic and geopolitical headwinds it is now encountering are likely to preclude any future bid for global primacy. What if China’s rise has stalled and it is destined to become nothing more than another great power with a major, but not predominant, role in global affairs?
In these circumstances, what strategic path is Beijing likely to follow? Or, put slightly differently, what grand strategy would a rational actor such as China adopt as it sees its window of opportunity for pursuing primacy – for “moving to center stage of world politics,” as President Xi Jinping once put it – start to close?
It is impossible, of course, to know precisely how China’s leaders would answer these questions. But one option available to Beijing would be to adopt a grand strategy of restraint. As originally conceived, restraint was envisioned as a specifically American strategy — as an alternative to what its advocates considered to be the self-defeating postwar American grand strategy liberal hegemony.
The argument was that this maximalist strategy ultimately undercut U.S. primacy by driving Washington to ever more counterproductive expenditures of blood and treasure in an ultimately futile effort to remake the world in America’s liberal image. Restraint was advocated as a more prudent way of using limited resources to achieve a more limited goal — sustainable American security rather than unsustainable liberal empire. It was explicitly not about the U.S. abandoning its position as the world’s sole superpower or retreating to some sort of “Fortress America.” It was about sustaining American primacy through prudent rebalancing and retrenchment.
On the face of it, then, restraint – at least as it has come to be conceptualized in the U.S. literature – would seem to be a uniquely American strategic option. But there is nothing inherent in the logic of the strategy that limits its applicability solely to an existing hegemon like the U.S. Indeed, with a few minor modifications, it might also meet the needs of any great power. If that is the case, it is worth asking what such a variant – a grand strategy of “restraint with Chinese characteristics” – might look like.
To begin with, such a Chinese variant would share with its American counterpart a fundamental commitment to local dominance. As restrainers typically assume with respect to the United States, America’s global hegemony has always rested on its dominance in the Western Hemisphere — on excluding any extra-hemispheric great powers and preventing the rise of a potential hegemonic challenger within the hemisphere. Historically, once the U.S. had established its hemispheric supremacy, it was able to project its power confidently around the world. Absent that hemispheric dominance, the restrainers argue, the U.S. would have been too distracted by local threats to assert itself globally. Put more generically, the theory of restraint holds that primacy in one’s own neighborhood is a necessary precondition for global supremacy.
In China’s case, a grand strategy of restraint would begin with establishing its primacy in the Western Pacific or Northeast Asia. This does not mean physically occupying neighboring countries, as the Soviets did in Eastern Europe following World War II. But it does mean that China would have to make itself the dominant player at least out to the first island chain (which runs from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines). And that, in turn, would require that it disrupt America’s alliance system in the region and push the U.S. military out all the way to the third island chain (which begins at the Aleutian Islands, runs through the central Pacific to Oceania, and includes Hawaii).
Failing this, regional powers – from Vietnam to Taiwan to Japan – would feel able to count on U.S. support and would thus be emboldened to resist Chinese power rather than accommodate themselves to it. Simply put, the theory holds that China cannot be an effective restrainer if it remains on the permanent defensive in its own neighborhood, hemmed in by American bases, naval forces, allies and partners. It must have regional supremacy.
Additionally, the two variants would share a commitment to countering hegemons in regions they deemed to be critically important. For American restrainers, these regions include Europe, Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf – Europe and Northeast Asia because they are the major industrial centers of the world and contain all of the other great powers, and the Persian Gulf because of its oil.
For a Chinese restrainer, in addition to its home base in Northeast Asia, the regions crucial to Beijing would likely also include Europe and the Persian Gulf. But the Indian Ocean region might also be considered crucial because of its importance as a maritime trade route, and the Arctic might make the list because of its increasingly accessible minerals and hydrocarbon deposits — and because, as the polar ice melts, it promises to provide an alternative sea route between East Asia and Europe.
Finally, like the U.S. version, a grand strategy of restraint with Chinese characteristics would eschew permanent military deployments around the globe, resting instead on a strategy of buck-passing and vanishingly rare interventions undertaken only when friendly local countries proved incapable of maintaining a stable regional balance.
But there the similarities would end. Given China’s distinctive geopolitical situation, Beijing’s version of restraint would necessarily differ from Washington’s in at least one important way. In the U.S. case, the focus of such a strategy would be on preventing the emergence of regional hegemons. In China’s case, it would be on disrupting already existing regional power balances favoring, and backed by, the U.S.
It would, for example, doubtless involve disrupting the balance of power in the Persian Gulf, perhaps by backing Iran’s bid to challenge the U.S.-Saudi domination of the region. It might also entail a concerted effort to undermine U.S. influence in Europe through the use of overt and covert means to exert its influence on political and economic elites and on academia. Taken to its logical conclusion, a Chinese strategy of restraint would even necessarily involve efforts to upend – or at least undermine – American dominance in the Western Hemisphere.
Ultimately, the goal of any Chinese strategy of restraint would be to disrupt U.S. dominance in all the world’s major regions to create a global sanctuary for China, even as Chinese power peaks and Beijing’s bid to move to center stage of world politics falters.
Will China adopt such a grand strategy? Only time will tell. And if it does, will it change the “great game” of Sino-American rivalry for better or for worse? Again, only time will tell.
Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.
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