Go back

Has power shifted in the Asia Pacific?

Published 06 Jul 2018

Is a power shifting from the USA to China? This is the question on the minds of political thinkers who fear a consequential restructuring of the rules-based order under a less benign and liberal leadership. The recent militarisation of China’s disputed islands in the China’s South China Sea (SCS) – the deployment of long-range anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on the Spratly Islands and the recent landing of long-range bombed aircrafts – without any substantial and effective reprisal (the only response has been international condemnation and freedom of navigation operations by the USA) may suggest that a power shift has truly occurred. Is the SCS now China’s backyard?

Commentators like Hugh White agree, declaring that the Asia-Pacific regional order is changing: power is shifting from the USA to China.[1] Through the “classic power-political ploy of salami slicing,”[2] China has attained a foothold in the SCS, and undermined American power in the region. Hugh White describes this method:

The aim is to test America’s resolve over a series of issues of little intrinsic worth, which on the face of it do not seem worth fighting over. But while each slice of the salami might be insignificant, Washington looks weak if it can’t or won’t stop China taking one slice after another, and China by contrast looks strong and resolved. This undermines the credibility of US leadership, as regional countries lose confidence that Washington will support them if the next slice of the salami is them. China’s influence is correspondingly enhanced, as its neighbours grow less willing to defy it.[3]

Despite China’s unimpeded gains, this approach has also caused a souring of relationships along its periphery, undermining the true key to attaining regional power: capturing the “hearts and mind” of people outside China, both regionally and globally. Whilst China has closed the gap significantly with the USA in terms of military and economic sources of power, geopolitical factors subvert any hope of a power shift. China’s inability to nurture cordial relations with states that are concerned about the strategic implications of its dramatic rise will continually hinder its ability to project influence, especially as its economic and strategic presence increases. What China requires is for nations to enter into alliance with it, or at least treat it in the same manner as the USA, because true power now lies not only in hard, but soft sources of power.

In the globalised world, international politics is far more complex. The introduction of nuclear weapons has given countries with limited hard power, a veto power. Therefore, the consolidation of power cannot now simply be achieved by aggressive expansion but must be underpinned by structural factors of soft power like favourable international opinion, appealing cultural products and a universally desired lifestyle and technological capabilities. China, constrained by a need to appease a domestic public opinion that calls for China to demonstrate its strength, have ignored these deteriorating bilateral relationships, resulting in international condemnation. In our current international system, it is the nature of power that has shifted; and until China grasps the diplomatic dexterity to manoeuvre along this new landscape, power will not shift to it in the Asia-Pacific region.

The USA continues to be the country that most people, including the Chinese people want to live in. Its appealing cultural and innovative technological products are admired along with the American lifestyle. Moreover, whilst America has a myriad of allies, many of which surround China, there are no partners that China can truly trust, an illustration of their enormous differences in soft, and geopolitical power and thus real power. However, President Trump’s ascension to the oval office may herald a shift in soft power and perhaps a shift in the regional order. President Trump’s dismissiveness towards America’s alliances, his outspoken belief in ‘America First’, his denunciation and withdrawal from multilateral agreements such as the Iran Deal, the Paris Climate Agreement, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, have all coalesced to diminish America’s soft power and undermine its once sturdy alliances. This is already evident, as once strident critics and rivals of China like Japan, India, and the Philippines start to warm up to China, quieting their voices of protest to China’s annexation. Whilst the situation is not as dire as commentators like Hugh White assert, the decline of America’s soft power at the hands of Trump may engender a regional power shift, requiring Australia to also adapt to play a role in forging a regional order conducive to its interests.


Alex Tu,

AIIA NSW intern, January – June 2018


[1] See n 11; White, Hugh (2011) “Power shift: rethinking Australia’s place in the Asian century” in Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 65, No. 1, 81.

[2] See n 11, p 11.

[3] Ibid.