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  • A Regional Perspective on the U.S. and Chinese Visions for East Asia
  • Yuen Foong Khong (bio)

The visions that great powers have for their neighborhood or regions farther afield are almost always about themselves—i.e., their role, power, and prestige in that neighborhood or region. The Monroe Doctrine was about fending off European encroachment into Latin America so that the United States could establish itself as the hegemon of the region. Xi Jinping's "China dream" is about internal rejuvenation, the consequence of which is a China that can stand tall in Asia. This essay examines how the United States and China view their respective roles and power in East Asia, how those views have changed over time, and what the implications are for the regional order. The Trump administration's perspective, I argue, is similar to that of previous administrations in assuming that U.S. hegemony is essential to maintaining security order in the region. China's perspective, on the other hand, has changed with time: while it welcomed the U.S. role in maintaining the security order in the past, China now believes that its growing clout makes it the United States' coequal in the region. Yet it is unlikely that the Trump administration will grant China that coequality. This sets the stage for heightened Sino-U.S. rivalry in the years to come, with China challenging the United States on multiple fronts, and the rest of East Asia having to choose sides.

The United States' Perspective and Policies

The United States sees itself as an Asia-Pacific power that plays a crucial role in the maintenance of the region's security order.1 The U.S. position is premised on its preponderant military power, its network of military alliances and strategic partners, and the institutions and instruments of the global market economy. Successive administrations have deemed it a vital U.S. interest to prevent the rise of a hostile hegemon in three key regions of the world: Western Europe, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia. That is another [End Page 6] way of saying that the United States expects to remain the hegemon of these regions—from this perspective, U.S. hegemony is both good for the United States and good for world order.

For much of the Cold War and most of the 1990s, this view of the United States as the primary provider of security and economic order in East Asia was not seriously challenged. In retrospect, the United States' hot wars in Korea and Vietnam may be seen as responses to Communist challenges to its hegemonic position in the region. East Asian leaders welcomed the U.S. projection of military power in their region, as can be seen from the presence of U.S. troops and materiel in bases in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand. In the 1990s, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia also encouraged the U.S. naval presence in Southeast Asia by allowing the United States to use their facilities. East Asian policymakers spoke of the need for a strong U.S. military presence to maintain peace and stability, when what they actually meant was that they were content with U.S. hegemony.

After September 11, some East Asian policymakers felt that the United States was distracted by its global war on terrorism and failed to pay sufficient attention to power shifts in the region. It is true that the United States skipped some multilateral meetings during the George W. Bush years, but it did what really mattered: consolidating its alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, while bringing in India as a trusted strategic partner. Similarly, many in East Asia welcomed the Obama administration's pivot or rebalancing to Asia, which they portrayed as the United States "returning" to balance a rising China. But the United States never left the region, and the pivot was an attempt to reinforce U.S. hegemony, not balance China.

The Trump administration's "America first" National Security Strategy continues this emphasis on U.S. military preponderance and leadership. The document is replete with phrases about the importance of the United States retaining military "overmatch" vis-à-vis its adversaries and maintaining a "favorable...


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