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 President 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 presence 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 Xi’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 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.
Hugh White is Professor in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University.
A version of this article was first published here in Straits Times and ANU East Asia Forum.