Not a week passes, it seems, without a big-picture thinker releasing a big-picture book or giving a big-picture sermon describing the gradual eclipse of American hegemony in Asia. True, American power will inevitably decline in relative terms as Asian giants such as China and India rise. But, at least as far as Asia is concerned, arguments about the end of American hegemony ring hollow.
For one thing, the United States was never a hegemon in Asia. Only some American post-Cold War triumphalists thought it was. The nature of U.S. power and the exercise of its influence was always much more clever and subtle than most assume. In fact, as India and China rise, the United States could actually find itself in a stronger position.
How can this be'? After all, power and influence are built on the back of economic success. The Chinese economy has been doubling in size every ten years since 1978. The Indian economy has been doing the same since 1991. In contrast, it takes about two decades for the U.S. economy to double in size. Doesn't this surely mean that Asia is rushing toward a state of multi-polarity--a configuration of roughly equal great powers balancing against each other--while American influence is on the wane?
The seemingly obvious conclusion would be true but for the fact that Asia has a unique kind of hierarchical security system that came about partly by accident and partly by design.
No power can be preeminent if it cannot maintain its military advantage over rivals. Yet, despite the fact that America spends more on defense than the next ten powers combined, it has never been a regional hegemon because it actually relies on the cooperation of other states to remain predominant. Without cooperation from allies such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and the Philippines, the United States could not retain its forward military positions in the West Pacific. Likewise, the United States needs the cooperation of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand to host its critical radar infrastructure.
Moreover, in remaining preeminent, America requires other key states and regional groupings, such as ASIAN, to acquiesce in its security relationships. Thus, there is broad-based regional approval of U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, as well as with partners such as the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and India. The key to the effectiveness of these bilateral relationships is that they enjoy widespread support (and thus legitimacy) in...