Though China’s long-term strategic ambitions are unknown and unpredictable, it seems certain that Chinese leadership seeks a preponderant role in Asia. It is less certain, but still likely, that China’s strategic goals include reducing the United States’ influence in Asia. China’s behavior towards its Asian neighbors, statements by Chinese officials, and historical examples of rising powers all suggest that China will seek to expand its regional role in the future. China, however, seems to have concluded that pursuing this goal too aggressively in the short-term will hurt their core interests of stability and continued growth.

In the fifth of Carnegie’s China debate series, Aaron Friedberg of Princeton University and Robert Sutter from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service debated the likelihood of strategic conflict between the U.S. and China over regional dominance. Michael Swaine, senior associate at Carnegie, moderated the discussion.

Will China try to push the U.S. out of Asia?
Participants agreed that whether China should seek to eliminate America’s influence in Asia is probably a subject of debate among China’s strategic elites. Though there may be agreement that reduced U.S. regional presence is desirable in the long-term, whether it is immediately necessary or even possible is less clear.

Sutter argued that Chinese leaders have concluded that the costs of taking assertive actions to achieve dominance under prevailing circumstances are too high for overall Chinese administration objectives. These circumstances include the significant power of the United States in Asia, and the presence of independent-minded Asian governments actively working to preserve their autonomy as China rises in prominence.

Sutter also emphasized that throughout history, Chinese leaders – whether emperors or revolutionaries – have tried to remove great power influence on China’s periphery. History suggests that the perception of this threat stems from deep-seated national security concerns, and would thus not change if the Chinese government became more democratic.

Driving factors
Friedberg cited power dynamics, history, and ideology as the three factors fueling China’s desire to achieve preponderance in East Asia. Increasing power leads to increased desire for influence, and China is no exception. China also needs resources, and its appetite will grow as its economy expands.

Memory is also a powerful driver of Chinese behavior. China is unlikely to accept a subordinate role to any East Asian power or to the United States while the memory of its “century of humiliation,” spanning the West’s colonial exploitation of China to the Japanese invasion during World War II, remains fresh.

Ideologically, the Chinese Communist Party is an insecure authoritarian regime, which is likely to be assertive externally, in part for domestic reasons, but also because of its suspicion of the United States and of other democracies. Its insecurities make it want to exert more control over its immediate environs.