US–China rivalry: does Asia have to choose?

Author: Hugh White, ANU

Can America preserve the US-led regional order by resisting China’s challenge to replace it with ‘a new model of great-power relations’? That depends a lot on how much support the United States can expect from its friends and allies in the region. That is why President Obama has invited ASEAN leaders to a special summit at Sunnylands in California next week.

US President Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping walk the colonnade of the White House, Washington, DC, USA, 25 September 2015. (Photo: AAP).

Most analysts are optimistic. They believe that strong regional support for US primacy is assured because Asians are so scared of Chinese hegemony. If so, there is a powerful mechanism at work here in America’s favour: the stronger China becomes, the more its neighbours fear its power and the more they are willing to support America against China.

This supposedly offsets China’s rise and preserves US preponderance: faced with a region united in support of US primacy, China has no option but to back off and accept the status quo.

But there is a catch: all of these countries depend on China economically and seek close political relations with it. How can we reconcile this with expectations that they will resist all China’s geostrategic ambitions in support of the United States? The answer most often given is that these countries are ‘hedging’, but it has never been clear what this means.

In their recent article on the Forum and longer essay, Darren Lim and Zak Cooper carefully explore the concept and its application to the situation in Asia today, and find it wanting. They are right about that, but their alternative account doesn’t quite hit the spot either.

Lim and Cooper define ‘hedging’ as a middle path between balancing against China and bandwagoning with it: sitting on the fence, in other words. By their definition, hedging by China’s neighbours would imply a significant dilution of their support for America. But this is not happening, they argue. These countries are not dialling down their strategic relations with America to maintain economic and political relations with China, they say, because economic and political relations can be managed independently of strategic ones.

That means — to borrow a phrase favoured by Australian policymakers — China’s neighbours ‘don’t have to choose’ between the United States and China. Lim and Cooper argue that Asian countries’ strategic alignment with the United States has actually deepened as China’s posture has grown more threatening, even as their economic and political links with China have deepened. Lim and Cooper predict that this deepening will continue. That’s good news for Washington and the future of US primacy in Asia.

Alas, there are two reasons to be more pessimistic. The first concerns the separation of strategic from economic issues, which is less clear than Lim and Cooper suggest. It is certainly true that China’s Asian neighbours have not yet confronted stark choices between strategic links with Washington and economic links with Beijing. But that does not mean the two sets of issues do not intersect. On the contrary, they are closely connected in the minds of policymakers, even if they do not admit it.

If this is not obvious, it is only because governments throughout the region — including Australia’s — have become adept at quietly balancing Washington’s appeals for closer strategic alignment and China’s willingness to punish countries who lean towards containment. Remember former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott’s swift repudiation of suggestions that USAF B-1 bombers would deploy to Darwin as a response to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea? Australia’s alliance with America ‘is not directed against anyone’, he said. This is not the way Washington sees it and not what Washington wanted to hear. Abbott was speaking to Beijing.

It is far from clear that regional countries will be able to maintain this watchful via media between America and China into the future. That depends on how things go between America and China. The further their rivalry escalates, the harder it will be to separate economic and strategic issues, and the starker the choices the rest of us will face.

And how would we choose, if that happens? Here is the second reason to be a little less optimistic about America’s future leadership in Asia. Lim and Cooper assume, I suspect, that if push comes to shove, regional support for America’s determination to preserve the US-led status quo is assured. That is not so clear to me. The choice in Asia is not, as many assume, a simple one between the US-led order many know and love and a Chinese hegemony they understandably fear.

Certainly no one in Asia wants to live under China’s shadow, and everyone realises that a strong US strategic role in Asia is the best way to avoid that. But regional powers also value their relationships with China enormously, and fear the consequences of escalating US–China rivalry. So they want America to stay in Asia on a basis that avoids escalating rivalry — which means on a basis that China is willing to accept.

If China cannot be persuaded to accept US primacy, China’s neighbours would far prefer a compromise that preserves a US role large enough to balance China’s power and avoid Chinese hegemony, but not so large as to perpetuate US leadership as we have hitherto known it. That means there would be strong regional support for some kind of US role, but not necessarily the role the US has in mind.

The reality is that Asian countries may support America against China to avoid Chinese hegemony, but not to preserve US primacy. They are too polite to say that out loud, but if President Obama listens carefully to his guests next week that is what he will learn. And that should lead him to wonder whether preserving primacy in Asia is really a sensible objective for America in Asia today.

Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University.

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