Chinese and US Ambitions Constrained

China is intent on rivaling the United States as a global superpower. That status requires good trade relations as few nations have access to all resources or production capacity required for military endeavors far from home. Solid finances also help. China, predominately a continental power, takes steps by building a powerful navy and launching its far-reaching Belt and Road Initiative for infrastructure development. Even so, the US commands the world’s largest navy, and China, more regional than global power, is not ready to prevent a US naval blockade, explains Joergen Oerstroem Moeller, associate senior fellow with ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. Meanwhile, the United States struggles to maintain defense spending, and its allies in Asia increasingly depend on good trade ties with China. “The America First point of view during the Trump era may make sense – as elaborate spin that accounts for US inability to continue investing in defense expenditures that cost more than the total expenditures of the next seven nations combined.” China and the United States pursue similar goals, yet geography and financial challenges constrain global ambitions for now. – YaleGlobal

Chinese and US Ambitions Constrained

China and the United States each pursue grand strategies, yet geography and financial constraints limit the global ambitions
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller
Thursday, February 14, 2019

US naval ships; Chinese trains
Road of rivalry: US naval ships maneuver in South China Sea, while China’s ambitious infrastructure plans challenge US domination


SINGAPORE: An objective of superpower grand strategy is to be seen as strong enough to win a major war without having to fight. To make such a policy credible in the eyes of rivals and challengers, financial strength should be solid enough to sustain a protracted war. That includes keeping trade routes open, as superpowers cannot rely exclusively on domestic resources and production capacity over the long term. China and the United States pursue grand strategies similar in purpose, but geography and financial constraints limit the global ambitions for each.

Geography requires that continental and maritime superpowers react differently to this quandary. A continental superpower, like the former Soviet Union, relies on neighbors for overland transport links – railways or trucks. A maritime superpower may operate independently of adjacent countries, but must keep sea lanes open, doing so by naval power.

History does not have examples of a successful continental superpower operating on a global scale. The closest is the Roman Empire, extending from present-day Iraq to Portugal and North Africa to the lower Rhine in 117 AD. The Spanish, British and American empires were predominantly or exclusively maritime. Challengers like the Soviet Union, Imperial and Nazi France, or France under Louis IVX and Napoleon were continental empires that lost for lack of support from adjacent nations.


China is predominantly a continental power and has been so throughout its history despite a coast stretching more than 14,000 kilometers. China’s few examples of maritime expansion, especially under Admiral Cheng Ho during the 15th century, were brief and long ago. China, despite being a new sea power, emerges as a rising superpower that could challenge the United State by land or sea. Until the Trump presidency, China’s leadership may have classified the United States as a reliable partner in the global economy. Abrupt shifts in US policies signal potential limitations for Chinese exports and investments abroad. Examples include the trade war threat and steps by several countries to block contracts with Huawei Technologies for 5G networks. China, far from being an autarky, depends on the outside world to support its economy and must keep trade routes open irrespective of US policies.

Geography also points out the unpleasant fact that the response is to build an extensive network across territories controlled by neighbors, few of which are large trade partners. China shares land borders with 14 nations – the longest with Mongolia, Russia, India, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Nepal and Vietnam. This explains the Belt and Road Initiative, an investment program potentially running close to US$10 trillion. One BRI objective is to secure imports into China of resources including oil by building harbors in several neighboring countries bordering the Indian Ocean or the Bay of Bengal. Another objective: Secure transport corridors for Chinese exports to Asian, European and eventually African nations.

China, fearing a naval blockade in a crisis, plans for transport corridors out of reach for an unpredictable United States. This comes at a price of higher dependence on its neighbors – including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Myanmar – a double-edged sword, with no guarantee that these countries will continue to host Chinese corridors. Political systems may look stable, but cannot be taken for granted. With global trends of populism and nationalism, regime changes and rulers less likely to be governed by logic and rationality can emerge.

China is fast building a powerful navy, but more than ships are required in a naval war, especially if the opponent is the United States with a long history of sea power and hard-won experience. For the near future, China cannot prevent a US naval blockade. Added to this challenge is a strong Japanese navy, not expected to side with China, and Chinese dependence on its land-border neighbors. For the time being, this pushes China towards being more regional than global power. China’s neighbors may play this game if they gain from doing so, and this requires that some fruit of Chinese economic growth falls into their baskets. With Belt and Road, China launches a complicated scheme shaping Asia’s future over the coming century. Success depends on Asian economic integration producing win-win results for all countries involved.

The United States may be a continental and maritime superpower, but the balance tilts towards the maritime vector as Canada and Mexico do not weigh as heavily in the US equation regarding relations to Asia and Europe.  


The United States enjoys the luxury of controlling its own destiny with a navy sufficiently strong to keep sea lanes open worldwide. When the Japanese naval power prior to World War II started to question US control over the Pacific, odds for a military conflict rose. The similarity between the British and American empires is striking. In both cases, the strategic outlook was to win a naval war against a challenger without losing its role as dominating global naval power. The British predicament emerged at the beginning of World War II when the Royal Navy was still powerful, but not powerful enough to take on Germany and Italy while deterring Japan.

Until recently, US dependence reached beyond Asia and Europe because of the net import of oil, much coming from the Arab world. The United States still depends on imports for about 20 percent of its oil needs. Its staunch Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, also depend on oil from the Middle East. That explains the US strategic interest in keeping sea lanes open across the Indian Ocean and South China Sea instead of confining its strategy to the Pacific. China’s dependence on imported oil is much higher.

Fracking technology turned the United States from net importer to net exporter of refined and select products for the first time in 2018, a symbolic milestone as suggested by the Wall Street Journal. Still, the Trump administration is less willing to support alliance partners – and this puts a question mark on the value of the Indian Ocean for the United States. Relations with Israel, Arab countries and the base in Qatar may prohibit strategic downgrading of the Indian Ocean for now, but that may not last for long. The combination of less dependence on fossil fuels from the Arab World, the Trump administration’s insistence that allies pay for their own defense and growing debt cast doubt on the United States maintaining defense spending. 

The conclusion might well be that trade across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but not necessarily the Indian Ocean, is decisive for the US economy. There may be political reasons for an Indo-Pacific structure, but the economics do not support such a concept, especially considering that Japan, South Korea and India depend on good trade ties with China.

The America First point of view during the Trump era may make sense – as elaborate spin that accounts for US inability to continue investing in defense expenditures that cost more than the total expenditures of the next seven nations combined. US withdrawal from Syria and a reduced military presence in Afghanistan, not to mention talk of the United States leaving NATO, are omens of what is in store. A global superpower realigns its commitments to allies across the globe, bringing them in line with US benefits from the alliance system.

The US and China pursue analogous goals, one of which is to secure trade links, but due to their distinct geography, they opt for different strategies that paradoxically classify both as primarily regional rather than global powers.   

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is associate senior fellow with ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore and adjunct professor with Singapore Management University and the Copenhagen Business School. He is also an Honorary Alumni of the University of Copenhagen.

This article was posted February 13, 2019.

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