I'm late to Stephen Walt's blog post on this topic, but it deserves your attention. 'The future of Sino-American relations should be on everyone's list of Top 5 "Big Questions"', Walt says:

...the main issue is whether China will continue to tolerate America's extensive and powerful military presence in East Asia or whether it will conduct a sustained effort to drive a wedge between the United States and its current allies and eventually force the United States out of the region. The current situation is clearly anomalous. Historically, it is somewhat unusual for one great power to have a tight set of alliances in the immediate neighborhood of another great power and to maintain a lot of military force in its vicinity, without the other power having a compensating presence in close proximity to its rival.

That last sentence prompts a thought-experiment which is worth keeping in mind whenever you read about aggressive or assertive Chinese behaviour in its region, such as the recent announcement of the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ).

What if we lived in a geopolitical bizarro world, in which, instead of the US having two treaty allies on China's doorstep with accompanying naval and air force bases and tens of thousands of troops, it was China which held the strategic upper hand in the Americas? A naval base in Cuba, perhaps. An alliance with Canada which included the permanent basing of 100,000 Chinese troops. Near-constant surveillance flights and regular submarine patrols off the California coast.

I'm not saying this is China's ambition, merely that the idea of it exposes how unusual the current Asian balance of power arrangement is, and how understandable it would be for the US to chafe at such treatment, particularly if, in this bizarro world scenario, the US was just blossoming into an economic giant which wanted to take its proper place as a world power.

Nor am I asking for sympathy for Beijing. As Rory Medcalf pointed out last week, China's behaviour on the ADIZ was provocative and ultimately counter-productive. But as a though-experiment, it does engender a bit of empathy.

Walt goes on to argue that China will want to force the US out of Asia ('What great power would want to be ringed by neighbors that have close security partnerships with its main peer competitor and would want that same rival to keep a lot of potent military forces near its shores?'), and that once it holds regional hegemony, Beijing will have the same freedom to order global affairs that Washington now enjoys:

If the United States is able to maintain the status quo in Asia and help prevent China from dominating the region, then Beijing will have to focus a lot of attention on local issues, and its capacity to shape politics in other parts of the world will be constrained. By contrast, if China eventually pushes the United States out of Asia, it will have the same sort of hegemonic position in its region that the United States has long enjoyed near its own shores. That favorable position is what allows Washington to wander all over the world telling others what it thinks they should do, and regional hegemony would give Beijing the option of doing the same if it wished.

This is where I would part from Walt. It's hard to imagine China ever enjoying such a strategically benign region as the US does. China has borders with 14 other countries, and although it has made strides to normalise relations with many and even resolve long-standing territorial disputes, its relations with near neighbours will never be as comfortable as those Washington enjoys, not least because Beijing shares borders with three other great powers (India, Russia, Japan).

Geography also limits China's access to the open ocean, another benefit America enjoys and which has played a big part in its ability to act as a global cop. And lastly, America hasn't just wandered the world 'telling others what it thinks they should do', it has also attracted supporters and forged long-standing alliances, another important factor in its status as a world power. China, by contrast, is a very lonely great power.

My sense, then, is that even if China succeeds over the long term in removing US strategic influence from Asia, Beijing will never be secure enough in its region to act as a world power in the way the US does today.

Photo by Flickr user showbizsuperstar.