Shifting Balance of Power

China and the United States are developing security policies to adjust to their changing fortunes in the regional balance of power, with consequences for heightened competition. As the power transition deepens, as China continues to rise and develop capabilities that challenge US maritime hegemony in East Asia, US-China tension will continue to intensify as each great power seeks to maximise its security. The fundamental challenge for each country is to manage this competition to avoid a spiralling conflict and a greater risk of war. Central to avoiding conflict escalation is mutual restraint in managing their conflict over Taiwan.

Since 1949 China has been a dissatisfied power. Given the presence of first the United States and then the Soviet Union on its borders, its revisionism was simply the expected reaction to its untenable security environment. As a continental power with a long coast line, Chinese security required its interior borders and coastal waters are free from the strategic presence of a great power. Throughout the Cold War, to realise territorial security, China fought the Korean War, the Sino-Russian War, and the Sino-Indian War and it participated in the three wars in Indochina. Following the US defeat in Indochina and then the collapse of the Soviet Union and its retreat from Indochina, China achieved its objective—securing dominance along its entire mainland periphery. It had established a sphere of influence on mainland Southeast Asia, military domination of its borders with its neighbours in Central Asia, India and with Russia in Northeast Asia, and developed sole political influence in North Korea. Moreover, with the normalisation of US-China relations in 1979, China secured the withdrawal of US military forces from Taiwan.

But at the end of the Cold War, China had yet to achieve coastal security. United States remained the hegemonic power throughout maritime East Asia and its navy could sail with impunity in Chinese coastal waters. Secure US access to the air force and naval facilities of its regional security partners, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia, amounted to maritime encirclement of Chinese territory. Thus, at the end of the Cold War, China was still a dissatisfied power. Nonetheless, it was too weak to challenge the post-Cold War maritime security order. It required a prolonged period of economic and technological modernisation both to consolidate its continental security and to develop the capabilities to challenge the US-dominated maritime status quo. This was the strategic foundation of China’s post-Mao economic strategy of the ‘Four Modernisations’, in which defence modernisation ranked fourth, and of its diplomatic strategy of ‘peaceful rise’.

Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China’s has embarked on a new security strategy. Confident in its economic and technological capabilities, over the past ten years China has strengthened its naval capabilities to challenge US maritime hegemony. By 2015, through the rapid development of modern submarines and missile destroyers and of advanced aircraft, China had developed qualitative and quantitative maritime forces that approached parity with the US military in East Asian seas. Moreover, its conventional land-based missiles put at risk US access to its security partners’ naval and air facilities throughout the region. China is now an East Asian maritime power that exercises sea control in the South China Sea and challenges American war-fighting capabilities throughout East Asia.

As the United States developed security cooperation with Vietnam and supported Philippine challenges to Chinese territorial claims and strengthened US-Philippine military cooperation, China constructed its artificial islands in the South China Sea and developed military facilities on these islands. China had thus strengthened its forward presence to enable more frequent and larger air force and naval operations near US security partners. Its objective is to enhance the PLA’s (People’s Liberation Army’s) coercive capabilities to compel the South China Sea countries to reconsider security cooperation with the United States.

China has made great strides in eroding the US alliance system within East Asia and realising greater maritime security. With the exception of Japan, the maritime countries in East Asia, in a clear break from the post-World War II security order, no longer proclaim themselves as committed American security partners. Rather, despite the existence of treaty agreements and their long-time partnerships with the United States, governments from South Korea to Malaysia insist that they will not take sides in the US-China competition; they are moving toward equidistance between China and the United States. And they express concern that the US policy towards China contributes to regional instability.


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Vol 55, No. 9, Aug 28 - Sep 3, 2022