Choos­ing be­tween the US and China in Asia

The Myanmar Times - - Views - HUGH WHITE news­room@mm­times.com

AS strate­gic ten­sions have mounted in Asia this year, it has be­come steadily clearer that small and mid­dle pow­ers in the re­gion – coun­tries like Sin­ga­pore and Aus­tralia – face a stark choice. But it isn’t, as some peo­ple sug­gest, a sim­ple choice be­tween ac­com­mo­dat­ing China’s grow­ing power or re­sist­ing it.

It is a much more com­plex choice about how far to sup­port the United States as it pushes back against China’s in­creas­ingly as­sertive re­gional con­duct, or whether to step back and leave the United States to con­front China’s chal­lenge alone.

None of us in th­ese coun­tries want to live un­der China’s shadow. But few, if any, be­lieve that we can avoid mak­ing some kind of ac­com­mo­da­tion with China’s grow­ing power and am­bi­tion. We ac­cept that one way or an­other China is go­ing to take on a greater lead­er­ship role in Asia. At the same time all of us want the United States to stay en­gaged in Asia, to help bal­ance China’s power and set lim­its on how far its re­gional lead­er­ship de­vel­ops. We look to the United States to en­sure that by ac­com­mo­dat­ing some of China’s am­bi­tions we do not end up sub­mit­ting to its hege­mony.

Our prob­lem is that the United States sees China’s chal­lenge very dif­fer­ently from the way we in Asia do. For most peo­ple in Wash­ing­ton, any se­ri­ous ac­com­mo­da­tion of China’s am­bi­tions is un­think­able. And those few who do ad­vo­cate ac­com­mo­da­tion se­ri­ously un­der­es­ti­mate how far it would have to go to meet even the most modest of China’s am­bi­tions.

The only ba­sis for a sta­ble and sus­tain­able re­la­tion­ship be­tween the world’s two most pow­er­ful states must be based on a mu­tual sense of par­ity be­tween them. The United States must treat China as an equal power, with an equal share in re­gional lead­er­ship.

To most of us in Asia this seems self-ev­i­dent. Few if any of the re­gion’s lead­ers or for­eign-pol­icy elites wel­come it be­cause they un­der­stand how much we have all ben­e­fited from the US lead­er­ship of Asia since the 1970s. But they also recog­nise that China’s rise is sim­ply too big to ig­nore. Asia can­not be trans­formed eco­nom­i­cally with­out ma­jor changes to the way it works strate­gi­cally and po­lit­i­cally.

That is the re­al­ity that Wash­ing­ton is yet to ac­cept. In­stead the as­sump­tion there re­mains that the only pos­si­ble goal of US pol­icy in Asia is to pre­serve its own re­gional pri­macy and that this is what US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia aims to do.

How is the pivot sup­posed to work? The underlying logic of the pol­icy is sim­ple. It as­sumes that China can be per­suaded to aban­don its chal­lenge to US lead­er­ship in Asia by con­certed re­gional diplo­matic pres­sure, backed by equiv­o­cal threats to use armed force if that pres­sure fails.

The hope is that if the rest of the coun­tries in Asia sup­port the United States in de­mand­ing that China re­turns to its for­mer ac­cep­tance of US re­gional pri­macy, and if the Chi­nese sense that there is even the re­motest chance that oth­er­wise it will face a mil­i­tary clash with the United States, then Bei­jing will back off.

The ap­peal of this ap­proach is clear. Diplo­matic pos­tur­ing is cheap, and so is mil­i­tary pos­tur­ing. If that is all that is needed to con­tinue the pres­ence of US lead­er­ship in Asia, then the price is clearly worth it. But its lim­i­ta­tions are even clearer. The kind of ac­tions which carry lit­tle cost or risk for the United States and its sup­port­ers im­pose equally small costs and risks on China.

Bei­jing is not reck­less in its pur­suit of a large re­gional role, but it is very de­ter­mined. This is a cen­tral part of Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s vi­sion of China’s fu­ture, and it seems to be shared by the vast ma­jor­ity of his peo­ple. They will not be de­terred by empty ges­tures. So the United States and its friends can only de­ter Chi­nese as­sertive­ness by tak­ing ac­tions that im­pose very real costs on China, and any such ac­tion in­evitably im­poses equally se­vere costs and risks on the United States and its sup­port­ers.

So while US pol­i­cy­mak­ers and an­a­lysts re­main com­mit­ted to per­pet­u­at­ing US lead­er­ship in Asia, they are not will­ing to se­ri­ously dis­cuss what would be needed to achieve it. They con­tinue to as­sure their friends and al­lies in Asia that they can sup­port the United States to ef­fec­tively re­sist China’s am­bi­tions with­out se­ri­ously dam­ag­ing their own re­la­tions with China.

That is most un­likely to be true, which leaves coun­tries like Aus­tralia, Sin­ga­pore and oth­ers in a very dif­fi­cult po­si­tion. We are keen for the United States to stay en­gaged in Asia, but we are re­luc­tant to sup­port the cur­rent pol­icy with its com­bi­na­tion of ex­ces­sive aims and in­ad­e­quate means. Nor do we want to en­cour­age the United States to ramp up the kind of pres­sure that would be needed to force China to back off and ac­cept the old sta­tus quo be­cause we fear that would lead to con­fronta­tion and con­flict.

But equally we worry that if we do not sup­port Wash­ing­ton’s cur­rent ap­proach, and leave it try­ing to deal with China un­sup­ported, the United States might start to with­draw from Asia – this is no longer un­think­able, who­ever wins the US elec­tion in Novem­ber.

So there is our choice. Do we in Asia sup­port a very flawed US pol­icy that of­fers lit­tle hope of a sta­ble fu­ture US-China re­la­tion­ship as the foun­da­tion of re­gional or­der in Asia? Or do we fail to sup­port it, and risk Amer­i­can with­drawal from any ma­jor strate­gic role in the re­gion? But there is a third op­tion – to start a re­ally frank dis­cus­sion with Wash­ing­ton about how we see things in Asia and what ap­proach we would re­ally like the United States to take.

– East Asia Fo­rum

Hugh White is pro­fes­sor in the Strate­gic and De­fence Stud­ies Cen­tre at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity.

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