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America, China, and the Tussle for Power in Asia

17 Jul 2015
Professor Hugh White
Aircraft carrier

It is not clear why America really needs to retain its traditional predominance in Asia, except that they have got used to exercising leadership and don’t like the idea of losing it.

All the tough talk from Washington over the past couple of months has done nothing to deter Beijing from its assertive polices in the South China Sea. Last [month] the Chinese Foreign Ministry coolly defied US warnings and announced that it would further develop its island bases for military as well as civil purposes. If this is how America plans to deal with China’s growing power, it’s not working. Clearly a new approach is needed.

The first step in formulating a better plan is to make sure we understand the problem. For a long time most political leaders and policymakers in Washington have tended to underestimate both how powerful China has become, and how determined it is to use its power to win a bigger leadership role in Asia.

That has led them to imagine that China could be easily deterred from any serious challenge to American leadership in Asia by low-cost, low-risk diplomatic gambits like the US campaign of words over the South China Sea. The assumption has been that mere expressions of US resolve would be enough to force China to back off. Indeed that has been the whole idea behind the Pivot, which has been so strong on rhetoric and so bereft of real strategic weight.

Now it is plain that tough talk alone will not be enough. China is not so easily discouraged. Winning a bigger leadership role for itself in Asia is a key priority for Xi Jinping and his colleagues. They are not reckless, but they are willing to push pretty hard and accept real costs and risks to achieve their goal. Americans will only be able to constrain China’s regional leadership ambitions if they are as committed to that aim as China is to theirs. If it is going to push back effectively, it will have to push back hard.

That logic is now nudging some leading US strategists to think about reviving ideas from the Cold War. It seems natural to try to build a coalition of regional partners to counterbalance China’s growing power, including not just old allies like Australia, Japan and the Philippines, but more non-aligned states like Singapore, Vietnam and India. In short, a kind of Asian NATO. We can already see this idea starting to influence the way America is heading in its relations with all these countries.

But there are three problems with it. The first is whether these countries can hold together as an effective alliance against China. Are the interests they share in constraining China’s power strong enough to overcome the separate interest they all have in maximising their own relations with the regional economic dynamo?

In particular, while they would all prefer not to live under China’s shadow, it is much less clear that they are willing to sacrifice their relations with China to serve America’s goal of preserving its traditional primacy in Asia. One of the many ways that Cold War models do not fit Asia today is that China, for all its assertiveness, is much less politically and strategically threatening to its neighbours, and is far more economically alluring, than the Soviets ever were.

The second problem is that China is already, in the most fundamental ways, much stronger relative to America than the Soviet Union ever was. It is not as well-armed as the Soviets were, but its economy is far stronger than theirs, and it will, before long, be stronger than America’s too. Indeed, on some measures, it has already overtaken them. If American policymakers are planning to wait for China to implode the way the Soviet Union did, they may be waiting a very long time.

And the third problem is that America’s own stakes in its rivalry with China are not as vital as its stakes in containing the Soviets in the Cold War. Back in the 1950s Americans really did fear that the Soviets might reach for world domination and threaten them in their own homeland. It is much harder to imagine China posing that kind of threat. And that means it is not clear why America really needs to retain its traditional predominance in Asia, except that they have got used to exercising leadership and don’t like the idea of losing it.

This matters when Americans have to ask themselves just what risks they are prepared to run and what costs they are willing to pay to preserve their leadership in Asia. The stronger China grows, the clearer it will become that America cannot hope to contain it in Asia unless it is willing to spend a lot more on defence that it has been doing in recent years, and is prepared to confront the risk of nuclear attack on US cities the way it did during the Cold War. While most Americans would like their country to remain the primary power in Asia, few would be willing to pay that kind of price to do so.

That is especially so if they come to see that the end of US regional leadership does not necessarily mean that China takes America’s place and establishes its own hegemony. There are many options for a new order in Asia dominated neither by America or China. The ideal would be an order in which the US and China shared influence and balanced one another’s power.

Under this model, America would step back from sole regional leadership, but would retain a strong and vital role in Asia’s strategic and political affairs. China would step up to a much bigger leadership role than it has enjoyed since the collapse of the classic Sinocentric order of imperial times, but its power would be balanced and limited by America and other major regional powers.

Of course a new order along these lines would not be easy to build or to maintain. It would require leaders in both Washington and Beijing to accept limits to their power that neither would find comfortable. The only reason to imagine that they might be willing to do so is that it seems the only alternative to escalating strategic rivalry between them, which would be terribly costly and risky to both of them.

Apart from anything else, both countries’ economies absolutely depend on them finding some kind of sustainable modus vivendi. That alone gives some grounds to hope that it might prove possible for a new order along these lines. But it will take a lot of delicate diplomacy, and that cannot even start until people in Washington both recognise the scale of the problem, and understand that it cannot be solved by re-running the Cold War.

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.  This article was originally published in the Straits Times on June 24, 2015. It is republished with permission.