Asia’s recent decades of economic growth have depended, among other things, on a remarkable period of regional peace and stability. The region will only keep growing if that can be sustained. We cannot take this for granted. The peace we have known has resulted from an unusual situation that emerged in the early 1970s, when China decided to follow Japan in accepting the United States as the primary strategic power in Asia. That has meant that US primacy has been uncontested by any major regional power in Asia, eliminating major-power rivalry as a source of tension and conflict.
But US primacy in Asia is now contested again. China no longer accepts American leadership as the foundation of the regional strategic order and instead seeks a ‘new model of great power relations’. This probably means it wants to take America’s place as Asia’s primary power, and its new strategic weight means we have to take this seriously. Few, if any, in Asia want China to get what it wants. US leadership has served the region well and no one wants to live under China’s shadow.
But wishes are no substitute for good policy. We delude ourselves if we imagine that Asia could be transformed economically by the biggest shift in the distribution of wealth in history without also being transformed politically and strategically. It would have been truly remarkable if China had not sought a bigger regional role as its power has grown, as every rising power in history has done before it.
So rather than just wishing that the old order might last for ever, Asia’s leaders have to start thinking about how the inevitable transformation of the regional order can be managed peacefully. Throughout the transformation, regional leaders should strive to preserve as many of the positive features of the old order as possible.
So far they have failed to do that. The problem starts in Washington, where US policymakers and analysts have remained in denial about the seriousness of China’s challenge. They underestimate China’s power and resolve, which leads them to think that low-cost low-risk gestures, like those promoted under President Obama’s ‘pivot’, can persuade Beijing to back off. Policymakers still assume that China would not risk the economic costs or military risks of a confrontation with the United States, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Recent events in the South China Sea, for example, suggest that Washington is more risk-averse than Beijing.
All this is compounded by what seems like excessive confidence on the other side of the Pacific. For Beijing it has become too easy to reach an assumption opposite to Washington’s — that it will be the US that backs off in the face of modest Chinese pressure and not the other way round. China’s actions over maritime disputes in the Spratly Islands and elsewhere seem plainly intended to do just this.
They are creating situations that test America’s willingness to risk a military confrontation with China on behalf of its allies. Beijing hopes and expects that the US will fail — and so far they have been proved mostly right.
This creates a very dangerous situation. Of course, neither side wants confrontation, let alone war. But each side expects to be able to achieve its aims without confrontation because it assumes the other will back down. And we should be under no illusion about the weight of the stakes for both countries. The maritime issues in dispute are not the cause of US–China rivalry any more than the status of Serbs in the Austro–Hungarian Empire was the cause of the First World War.
Their contest is driven by mutually incompatible visions of the future Asian order and their roles in it. For both of them, this goes to central questions of national identity and destiny. These are just the kinds of issues that great powers do go to war over, and the mutual underestimation of each other’s resolve is how such wars start when neither wants nor expects them to.
The risks may well grow in future if Beijing becomes impatient with Taiwan’s new government. Tensions across the Strait, which eased under President Ma, would then start to rise again, adding another, even more emotive focus for US–China rivalry.
But of course there are many other possible foundations for a new Asian order, which would serve the interests of all of us, including the United States and China, much better than either a protracted struggle for regional primacy between the world’s two strongest states or a passive acceptance of Chinese hegemony. Our challenge is to explore these alternatives and how they might best be brought about. It is an extraordinarily difficult task, but the stakes could not be higher.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived in the Philippines on Wednesday to highlight strong and growing military relations with a crucial Southeast Asian ally as China assertively pursues its claims in the South China Sea.
Carter's visit comes as the two countries conduct joint military exercises and on the heels of an agreement that allows a U.S. military presence at five Philippine bases, one of which Carter plans to visit on this week's trip.
While the initial agreement allows for five bases, Carter told reporters while on the way to the Philippines that there would be more in future.
Defense officials from the Philippines and Vietnam will also meet this week to explore possible joint exercises and navy patrols, military sources said, shoring up a new alliance between states locked in maritime rows with China. [L3N17G2XK]
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the waters, through which about $5 trillion in trade is shipped every year.
The U.S. defense chief's visit also takes place weeks before a ruling is expected on an arbitration case the Philippines has brought against China in The Hague.
The United States believes that whatever the tribunal's decision, it will be binding on both China and the Philippines, but China has refused to recognize the case and says all disputes should be resolved through bilateral talks.
The United States has conducted what it calls "freedom of navigation" patrols in the area, sailing within 12-nautical mile territorial limits around disputed islands controlled by China to underscore its right to navigate the seas.
Those patrols have drawn sharp rebukes from China, but U.S. officials have said the United States will continue to challenge what it considers unfounded maritime claims.
U.S. officials say the Navy is carrying out more aggressive patrols in the region, sailing close to disputed features.
"They're sailing within 13, 14, 15 miles, without dipping into the 12-mile limit, and the Chinese have definitely noticed," said one U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The official said Chinese ships were now shadowing every U.S. ship in the region, and routine ship-to-ship communications had become testier and sometimes unprofessional.
This year the United States is providing the Philippines with about $40 million as part of the five-year, $425 million Maritime Security Initiative (MSI).
That money will be used to train staff at the Philippines National Coast Watch Center, better enable the sharing of classified information between the U.S. and the Philippines, and buy better sensors for Philippine Navy patrol ships.
Swift progress on spending this year's MSI funds would enable the Pentagon to ask Congress for "multiples more" in funding for future years and possibly expand spending to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand, said Ernest Bower, chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In the Philippines, Carter will observe annual U.S.-Filipino military exercises known as Balikatan. Around 4,400 U.S. troops are participating in the exercises, in addition to 3,000 Filipino troops.