Life in China’s Asia

What Regional Hegemony Would Look Like

Changing of the guard: Chinese naval officers in Shanghai, December 2013. Carlos Barria / Reuters

For now, the United States remains the dominant power in East Asia, but China is quickly closing the gap. Although an economic crisis or domestic political turmoil could derail China’s rise, if current trends continue, China will before long supplant the United States as the region’s economic, military, and political hegemon.

As that day approaches, U.S. allies and partners in the region, such as Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea, will start to face some difficult questions. Namely, should they step up their individual defense efforts and increase their cooperation with other countries in the region, or can they safely decide to accept Chinese dominance, looking to Beijing as they have looked to Washington for the past half century?

It may be tempting to believe that China will be a relatively benign regional hegemon. Economic interdependence, one argument goes, should restrain Chinese aggression: because the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rests on economic growth, which depends on trade, Beijing would maintain peaceful relations with its neighbors. Moreover, China claims to be a different sort of great power. Chinese officials and scholars regularly decry interventionism and reject the notion of “spheres of influence” as a Cold War relic. Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that his country has “never engaged in colonialism or aggression” thanks to its “peace-loving cultural tradition.” In this view, life in China’s Asia would not be so different from what it is today.

But this is not how regional hegemons behave. Great powers typically dominate their regions in their quest for security. They develop and wield tremendous economic power. They build massive militaries, expel external rivals, and use regional institutions and cultural programs to entrench their influence. Because hegemons fear that neighboring countries will allow external rivals to establish a military foothold, they develop a profound interest in the domestic politics of their neighborhood, and even seek to spread their culture to draw other countries closer.

China is already following the

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