Hugh White continues to paint a picture of the United States being the principal cause of the growing tensions in Asia by not making enough concessions, and by ‘containing’ rather than ‘ceding primacy’ to China. He claims ‘American efforts to perpetuate primacy in the face of China’s challenge will create not peace and stability but escalating rivalry and a growing risk of conflict.’ Many in the region would disagree.
I could understand this line being argued under the ‘hawkish’ Bush administration. But I can’t quite see how this line is maintained concerning a reluctant and non-combative Barack Obama. Sure, the United States has talked about a ‘pivot’ or a rebalancing, but in reality it has not amounted to much more than a return to barracks of those forces that used to be based there (in Okinawa, Guam and Hawaii) before they deployed for over a decade on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even then, the siren calls of the Middle East continue to beckon. So much for an Asian-centric pivot.
Buffeted by the GFC and the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, the USA has recently been demonstrating unprecedented restraint. Indeed many are now saying Obama has made more concessions to China than allied countries in Asia want, and ceding primacy to China they see as being inimical to their interests. Japan, for instance, has indicated its concern at US deference towards China by increasing its defence expenditure, modernising and expanding its naval forces and reaching out to other concerned neighbouring states, like the Philippines.
The Philippines also has looked to reinvigorate its US security treaty and yet Washington’s response has been tepid at best with no promise to stand shoulder to shoulder in opposition to Chinese provocations over the South China Sea. The United States has effectively conceded on this issue as much if not more than Hugh’s prognoses have called for, yet with little sign of having placated China.
Vietnam similarly has reached out to the Philippines in an effort to shore up positions in the face of Chinese assertiveness. Beijing’s claims go beyond the bounds of accepted UNCLOS and other international provisions. In fact virtually no other country besides China has any particular concerns about the enduring relevance of the San Francisco system these provisions represent.
India is likewise concerned about Chinese assertiveness over disputed border territories, asserting itself just below the threshold that would trigger outright war in order to avoid risking exposure to concerted counter-action by those it seeks to pick off one by one. These countries are bolstering their defence budgets and looking at ways to mitigate the risks posed by a more assertive China, while also seeking to engage constructively.
China has sought to silence its critics through co-option or by threats. In the case of ASEAN, long used to the practice of non-interference in one another’s affairs, China has capitalised on this inertia and on ties with countries like Cambodia, now a major beneficiary of ‘no-strings attached’ Chinese aid.
ASEAN countries and their neighbours are concerned that should China’s economic miracle wane, then the Chinese government may use some of the external issues and fears it has been stoking lately to distract what likely will become an increasingly restive domestic political scene. Most of its neighbours also find it hard to look past China’s authoritarian one party state with a poor human rights record.
China’s harsh and almost shrill anti-US rhetoric has abated somewhat since the recent Xi–Obama summit: itself a significant recognition by the United States of China’s place in the world. This is largely because the United States has continued seeking to engage with China, respectfully initiating a range of mechanisms to foster engagement, enhanced mutual understanding and cooperation. At the same time the US has continued to respect long-standing treaty obligations to South Korea and Japan and congressionally-legislated commitments to Taiwan (remembering that US recognition of China instead of Taiwan was predicated on ongoing military backing for Taiwan— something China knows well, but which it chooses to ignore).
Portraying an image of American hubris in Asia is now misplaced and outdated. Similarly, the presentation of China’s claims as measured and reasonable is also misplaced and outdated. In the last couple of years, China has flaunted its power and squeezed its less powerful neighbours to gain geopolitical advantages not through negotiation but through unwelcome coercion. Additional US concessions to China might lead to a more acceptable and more stable East Asian order, but they might also exacerbate tensions and lead to a breakdown in the ‘post-war’ order widely referred to as Pax Americana.
We should be careful of what we ask for. Evidence to date suggests further incremental US concessions on recognition of China’s status and US regional security obligations, of ‘ceding primacy’, won’t satisfy China. And no one can explain how much ceding would be enough to placate China. In addition, there are knock-on consequences of any further concessions on other Asian powers; all of which also want to have a say over their own destinies and which appear poised to increase military spending that may further destabilise the region.
So far, conciliatory gestures appear to have encouraged further Chinese adventurism. It is hard to see how this could be conceived as stabilising for the region. The United States’ response correctly seeks to balance legitimate calls for respect of China’s return to the limelight. But it also honours long-standing commitments to allies and partners in Asia, while also protecting its own national interests. To call US policy ‘containment’ is to oversimplify a much more nuanced, multifaceted and cautious American approach to engagement with its greatest trading partner while remaining true to American security commitments across Asia. In fact, if anything, Chinese behaviour has done a good job of containing itself by driving Asian countries closer to the United States and each other.
John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.