The United States and its Asian partners want to maintain a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, ostensibly to prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon there. They worry that Beijing will gradually persuade its neighbors to distance themselves from the United States, accept Chinese primacy, and defer to Beijing’s wishes on key foreign-policy issues. In 2018, for example, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned that China is “harboring long-term designs to rewrite the existing global order. … The Ming Dynasty appears to be their model, albeit in a more muscular manner, demanding other nations become tribute states, kowtowing to Beijing.” Former U.S. officials such as Rush Doshi and Elbridge Colby and prominent realists writing on U.S. grand strategy—myself included—have made similar arguments, and China’s stated desire to be a “leading global power” and its efforts to alter the status quo in the South China Sea and elsewhere appear to justify these concerns.
The implications of this view are troubling. If China is actively seeking to become a regional hegemon in Asia and the United States is dead set on preventing it, a direct clash between the world’s two most powerful countries will be difficult to avoid.