In 1823, President Monroe insisted that North and South America would not be “subjects for future colonization by any European powers”. The New World was America’s for the taking. Otherwise, it risked being gobbled up once again by Europe. The “United States”, in other words, was preferable to the “United Colonies”.
By 1898, the US had become a regional hegemon. By hegemon I mean the only great power in a system of states. So a regional hegemon is the only great power in a region of the world. The US was a regional hegemon because it dominated North and South America, and had no peer competitor there. Think of being at the top of the class, but also the only person in the class.
Yet the US did not stop there. After achieving regional hegemony, and realising that global hegemony was out of reach, American policymakers decided that the US should be the only regional hegemon. This is why President Wilson declared war against Germany in 1917: he wanted to prevent Germany from dominating Europe. This is also why President Roosevelt fought against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany during the Second World War, despite the reluctance of his citizens and fellow politicians. The containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War further reinforced the idea that nowhere, apart from the Americas, could be dominated by a single power. At least, that was the plan.
Fast forward to 2017, and China is trying to replace America as the dominant world power. China, for very American reasons, wants to become a regional hegemon. After all, China has the second largest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on Earth. And China’s economic power is being translated into military power. China is trying to make Southeast Asia submit to its hegemonic embrace of the region, just as the US made Mexico and the colonial powers bow to its hegemony in the nineteenth century.
But China, if it follows the American trend, will first need to rid Southeast Asia of American influence. This would be no mean feat, since America spent $596B on defence in 2015 – more than double China’s $215B. Nevertheless, American power is being eroded, and China has continued to militarise islets outside its legal borders. On 23 January, China asserted its “indisputable sovereignty” over vast swathes of the South China Sea.
Yet President Trump is doing exactly the opposite of what is in America's interests. Instead of pressing forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would make Pacific states economically dependent on the US and nobody else, the President has already withdrawn the US from TPP. The partnership would have Americanised 12 Pacific economies and 20% of global trade, allowing the US to dominate the South China Sea. This would also prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon. But now that TPP is falling apart, China will be able to dominate the region through its own 16-member trade deal comprising 24% of global trade. As I predicted in November, America’s withdrawal from another agreement – the Paris climate accord – is already threatening global stability.
In short, China is rising. Its path toward regional hegemony is, it now seems, unstoppable. But once it dominates Southeast Asia, its next objective will be clear: the containment of, or even encroachment on, American global power. The tables have turned: once the US was the only regional hegemon. Now China is about to become a regional hegemon, perhaps capable of doing to America what America previously did to the Soviet Union. China has the unique opportunity to replace America as the mightiest great power the world has ever seen. The spotlight of history is shifting – from Washington to Beijing, and from Donald Trump to Xi Jinping.
Original Image by Alexander Nutman.