There has been a recent surge of literature on the decline of America as a global power. Some Americans are also increasingly worried about their national decline. Many in the country and across the globe believe that the US is slipping away from being the world's most powerful nation. A Pew Poll conducted last year found that that only 28% of Americans believe that their "country stands above all others." This is down 10% points from just three years earlier. Several believe that the very existence of a debate regarding American declinism narrative questions the health of the country.
"Rethinking economic policies at home, pushing technology frontiers and robust diplomatic missions abroad backed with required military reach would be critical to sustaining American pre-eminence."
Most recently Joseph S Nye in his book Is the American Century Over?demystifies American's long history of worrying about their country's decline. He makes the case that America will continue to play a central role as the most dominant power even during 2040s. He corroborates his arguments with facts and figures on the indices of America's favourable geography, demographics, military power and soft power, purchasing power parity and science and innovation. Nye's thesis is compelling and has merit as these factors would continue enabling America to be a pivotal power in world politics.
Increasingly, there is an asymmetry in the fulcrum of economic power and military power. Taking cognizance of the gradual shift in the centres of geo-economics and geopolitics is critical to sustaining and maintaining America's power in global affairs. America's leadership in global affairs needs to be supplemented with maintaining economic primacy with a competitive edge in market-driven economics. Rethinking economic policies at home, pushing technology frontiers and robust diplomatic missions abroad backed with required military reach would be critical to sustaining American pre-eminence.
Relative power matters in international politics. Indices like the largest army, share of international trade, and most technologically advanced military, powerful navy, best universities and demographics portends that for a long time US would be unrivalled in world politics. With a resilient political system, the US has been able to construct a global order based on liberal values and solidified it with an intricate system of alliances which expands America's unipolar moment.
With the turn of the century, the world has witnessed transnational challenges such as terrorism, global pandemic diseases, climate change and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These challenges have increasingly proved that America alone cannot address these global threats alone and needs credible partners across the globe.
In Asia, during the 1990s the great globalisation push led to the emergence of countries like China, India and East Asian Tigers in the Asian economic centrestage. This shift in economic power to Asia has also created underlying currents of a power transition from a dominant US in the Asia-Pacific to a multipolar region.
Since 2008, China has adopted assertive policies which undermined Asian stability and challenged the status quo in maritime Asia along China's periphery. In 2013, China's Ministry of National Defense issued an announcement of the aircraft identification rules for the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone of the People's Republic of China. Recently, it is reported that China's land reclamation is creating a "great wall of sand" in the South China Sea. The "unprecedented" reclaiming of land in contested waters has led to serious questions regarding Chinese intentions.
"The challenge for US and its partners would be to deter Chinese aggressive posture without risking an escalation of conflict."
The steady and rapid growth of China since the 1980s in the economic sphere and its challenge to American domination in East Asia has engendered the debate on China's peaceful rise. Recently two interesting discourses have emerged on how the US should engage with China. Robert D Blackwill and Ashley J Tellis in "Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Towards China" argue that Washington needs a new grand strategy towards China that centres on balancing the rise of Chinese power rather than continuing to assist its ascendancy. In another competing analysis by Kevin Rudd, "The Future of U.S.-China Relations Under Xi Jinping", the former Australian Prime Minister argues that both Washington and Beijing can avoid the "Thucydides' Trap," the historical pattern of conflict when rising powers rival ruling ones and can forge a common narrative which is mutually beneficial.
The Asia-Pacific region is by and large becoming a theatre of a brewing strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing. Asian countries whilst deepening economic partnerships with China look to powers like the United States, India, Japan, Australia and Indonesia to infuse a sense of dynamic multipolarity in the region. Recently, the US Navy sent USS Fort Worth, a littoral combat ship on its first patrol of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea along with patrolling of the airspace with a dispatched reconnaissance drone and a Seahawk helicopter. America's patrol of the South China Sea comes at a time when there are added concerns in Washington that China might impose air and sea restrictions in the Spratly Islands once it completes work on its seven artificial islands.
One of the unintended consequences of this rivalry in the Asia-Pacific is China's gradual deepening ties with Russia to counter America's Asia Pivot. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, during a visit to Beijing, has stated that in 2015, Russia and China will hold joint military exercises in the Pacific Ocean closer to the Chinese mainland and in the Mediterranean Sea. In the face of escalation of tensions in the Asia-Pacific, the US role in the region should be backed by long term demonstrable political commitment. In the better interest of stability and unity in Asia, Beijing needs to be mindful that its long term strategic interests lie in an approach which is not revisionist.
US Pivot to Asia policy in action in the Asia-Pacific region provides allies and partners with the credible deterrence against an increasingly assertive China. However, American policies should fine-tune a balance between avoiding a hot conflict and cooperation with China to facilitate the country's peaceful rise. The costs of a hot conflict in the region would be high and have difficult consequences which need to be avoided. The challenge for US and its partners would be to deter Chinese aggressive posture without risking an escalation of conflict.