Zhou Bo: A stronger China has no reason to seek a sphere of influence even as US power wanes

  • Does a stronger China need a sphere of influence? I asked myself this question when I came across the article, “The New Spheres of Influence”, in Foreign Affairs by Harvard professor Graham Allison. Allison argues that, after the Cold War, the entire world became a de facto American sphere. But now the unipolarity is over. The United States must share its spheres of influence with other great powers such as China and Russia.

    I imagine for a moment where a Chinese “sphere of influence” might be. Not in Central Asia, where Russia’s influence is dominant. Not in South Asia, where India’s influence is paramount. Only East Asia looks likely, given its historical and cultural ties with China.

    But, if a sphere of influence means a state has a level of exclusive control in cultural, economic, military or political matters, to which other states show deference, East Asia can hardly be described as China’s sphere of influence.

    North Korea has developed nuclear weapons despite China’s disapproval. Japan, South Korea and Thailand are American allies. Some member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

    With Chinese and Russian as its official languages, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which has no Western members, might look like a joint sphere of influence for China and Russia. But it has proven more inclusive than anticipated. Turkey, a Nato member, is a dialogue partner of the SCO. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had even asked to join the organisation as a full member.

    India and Pakistan became member states in 2017. The inclusion of two long-time arch-rivals could bring problems, but their membership also increases the influence of the organisation, which straddles the Eurasia continent, and strengthens efforts to tackle the so-called “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism that have plagued the region.


    Perhaps nowhere looks more like China’s sphere of influence than the South China Sea. Much has been said about how China is turning the region into a “Chinese lake”, especially as its land reclamation has enhanced its physical presence there.

    But no international laws prohibit land reclamation, and some other claimants have done the same. China maintains that around 100,000 ships transit through the South China Sea every year without freedom of navigation problems. What China opposes are military activities against the interests of the littoral states in the name of freedom of navigation.

    The Chinese government has repeatedly stressed that China would not seek to be a hegemon even if it became developed. Although this might sound like lip service to some, its assertion is backed by history. For 2,000 years, much of East Asia was part of the Chinese sphere of influence, but that influence was primarily cultural. 

    Admiral Zheng He’s seven voyages in the Indian Ocean showed the sweeping power of the “Celestial Empire” in the Ming dynasty, but the Chinese didn’t bother establishing a single military base in any of these places. It was only 600 years later that the People’s Liberation Army established a logistics base there in support of counter-piracy efforts in the Indian Ocean.

    Influence and a sphere of influence are two different things. Today, China’s influence almost overlaps with that of the United States. Such influence will grow further since China is widely expected to surpass the US to become the world’s largest economy in terms of gross domestic product in 10 to 15 years. In other words, a global China that is already influential enough doesn’t need any spheres of influence.

    This then invites two most important questions for the 21st century: how will the world accommodate China’s rise? And, what can China bring to the world?

    China’s Belt and Road Initiative might provide an answer to the second question. The initiative is ambitious, but it is not a gilded instrument of a new Chinese order, as The Economist asserted. It is not charity – China invests for mutual benefit. Neither is it a “debt trap” – who would spend trillions of dollars to lay such a mega trap? Any such grand scheme might take generations to finish. But the projects are, day by day, changing the economic landscape of the developing countries along the belt and road for the better.

    Contrary to Allison’s suggestions, the last thing the US wants is to cede any sphere of influence to China, its primary competitor in what it sees as a new era of great-power competition. In East Asia, the challenge is how Beijing and Washington, with their overlapping influence, could coexist.

    The US suspects China is trying to drive it out of the region. It has stepped up its provocations in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, which risk testing the patience of a PLA growing ever stronger.

    Winston Churchill once famously quipped: “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” Not really. In East Asia, America’s allies are steeling themselves and tiptoeing between their ally and their top trading partner. So far, none has joined the US Navy on its freedom of navigation operations in the 12-nautical-mile waters off Chinese rocks and islands in the South China Sea.

    There is no guarantee the US could win in a military conflict with China in the first chain of islands stretching from Japan to the Philippines and the South China Sea. But should it lose, the consequence is not moot: it would lose prestige and credibility among its allies and partners in the region. The alliance would fall apart and it may have to go home. In that sense, only the United States can displace the United States in the Western Pacific.

    Allison is right to conclude the illusion that other nations will simply take their assigned place in a US-led international order is over. But even if that means there are indeed spheres of influence in the world today, China should beware and stay away from them. They look more like perilous traps than power vacuums awaiting China.

    [Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (retired) is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University, and a China Forum expert]

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