The Rise of an Insecure Giant

SEOUL – By the time China overtakes the United States as the world’s largest economy sometime in the next few years, it will have cemented its status as a major military power – one whose drive to assert itself strategically already is inspiring serious anxiety among its neighbors. But the truth is that China is a solitary, vulnerable rising power – one that faces potentially crippling domestic challenges.

China is currently encircled by US military installations and allies. While Asian countries are largely willing to maintain and even expand their economic ties with China, none (except North Korea, which depends on Chinese aid) is prepared to accept it as the region’s primary power. In fact, US allies like Indonesia and India have emerged as global players largely in response to China’s rise.

For its part, the US has shifted substantial military power toward Asia – with high-profile military deployments in Australia and the Philippines, and 60% of America’s naval capabilities now deployed in the region – and has enhanced its defense ties with Japan and South Korea. Moreover, it is helping to spearhead the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an economic and trade agreement that excludes China but includes many of its regional neighbors.

Against this background, US claims that its strategic rebalancing is not about containing China are not particularly convincing. Indeed, the US is pursuing a strategy of primacy in Asia, not a partnership between equals, and this, together with China’s own internal tensions, is undermining China’s ability to participate productively in regional and global forums.