The U.S.-China Peace: Great Power Politics, Spheres of Influence, and the Peace of East Asia

By Ross, Robert S. | Journal of East Asian Studies, September-December 2003 | Go to article overview

The U.S.-China Peace: Great Power Politics, Spheres of Influence, and the Peace of East Asia


Ross, Robert S., Journal of East Asian Studies


East Asia in the post-Cold War era has been the world's most peaceful region. Whereas since 1989 there have been major wars in Europe, South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and significant and costly civil instability in Latin America, during this same period in East Asia there have been no wars and minimal domestic turbulence. Moreover, economic growth in East Asia has been faster than in any other region in the world. East Asia seems to be the major beneficiary of pax Americana.

Yet East Asia is the region where the United States is the least powerful, where it experiences the greatest constraints on its power and on its flexibility. In East Asia the United States does not enjoy hegemony. On the contrary, in East Asia the United States confronts its most formidable rival and potential great power challenger--the People's Republic of China (PRC). Thus, the paradox of East Asia is also the global paradox. Where the United States has been most powerful, there has been regional instability and war. Where there has been great power rivalry and traditional balance of power politics, there has been peace and prosperity.

The explanation of this paradox lies in the power differential between the great powers and local powers. The United States can be the sole great power in the region, but due to distance and geostrategic obstacles it may not possess sufficient dominance over smaller powers to compel compliance and establish order. Thus, it confronts challenges to its rule and the region experiences instability. This is frequently the case when establishing dominance requires the United States to project power onto the Eurasian mainland. This had also been the case in East Asia during the Cold War, where U.S. inability to project dominant power onto the mainland contributed to the protracted conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. But U.S. weakness is Chinese strength, such that China has overwhelming dominance on the mainland. The result is that China maintains a pax Sinica on mainland East Asia and the United States maintain a pax Americana in maritime East Asia. The bipolar peace of East Asia reflects the ability of China and the United States to dominate the local powers in their respective spheres.

The first section of this article examines the zone of pax Americana. The second section examines the zone of pax Sinica. The third examines the most contested area of East Asia--the Taiwan Strait--where the United States and China contend for influence and where there still exists considerable potential for instability. The concluding section examines the prospects for stability in an era of declining U.S. power in East Asia.

Pax Americana: Dominance at Sea

Pax Americana establishes its rule and imposes order in East Asia in the twenty-first century in just the same way that pax Britannica established its rule in the eighteenth century--through sea power. But whereas Britain insisted that its national security required it to possess a two-power standard, whereby its naval power would be sufficient to contend with the world's next two largest navies at the same time, in the twenty-first century the United States possesses the world's only great power navy. Thus, the United States does not possess a two-power standard but a global standard. It can contest all of the world's navies simultaneously.

U.S. naval supremacy is particularly well suited to establish order in maritime East Asia. The East Asian littoral is composed of a vast island chain that extends from Japan in the northeast to the Malaysian Peninsula in the southeast. The vast amount of water and the distance between the states enables the U.S. Navy to operate in secure waters. Moreover, the archipelago nature of many of the states, especially of Indonesia and the Philippines, but also of Japan and Malaysia, enables a naval power not only to dominate the sea-lanes but also to determine the security of the local powers. …

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