Can China—the rising power—live with America— the established power? Or are the two destined to come to blows, in a conflict of unprecedented intensity and scale?
For the Asean states, even closer to the bone is the question of whether Southeast Asia’s middle powers can survive in the interstices between the two great powers.
These are the issues Asean leaders ponder as they chart strategies to keep their states viable in an increasingly contentious Asia Pacific.
American peace no more
During this next decade, our statesmen must replace the American peace that has stabilized the region these past 70 years with a Pax Pacifica founded on the balance of mutual benefit.
And, ironically, it is China’s rise under the American imperium that has made a new power balance necessary.
The United States still wields the strongest influence on global affairs. America is still at the cutting edge of invention; the model of political liberalism and the open culture. But even America cannot act in the world on its own any longer.
Already, President Xi Jinping speaks openly of China’s great-power ambitions—of Beijing’s wish to take an “active role in global governance,” and to contribute “Chinese wisdom to perfecting such a system.”
The American peace has enabled the region’s states to grow on a scale and at a speed the World Bank (WB) regards as near-miraculous.
Regional poverty fell from almost 80% in 1981 to only 18% in 2005. In China alone, 628 million people moved into the middle class.
At the height of China’s growth spiral, its GNP multiplied as much as 30 times in a single generation. The most recent WB projections suggest China will soon overtake the US as the largest national economy.
China’s place in the world
China’s demographic—and cultural—weight compels the world to take seriously Beijing’s claim to superpower rank, perhaps even in advance of its superpower capability.
In the Chinese view—according to the British historian C.P. FitzGerald (1902-1992)—China’s civilization developed by itself, without deep influences from any other culture of equal gravity; and its fertile heartland, set in a harsh continental environment, “was never brought under the rule of Western men.”
“The Chinese sense of unity, of belonging to a civilization rather than to a state or nation, was thus very ancient,” wrote FitzGerald in 1966. “It transcended political allegiances and the strife of princes.”
Spheres of influence
China’s relations with the United States, President Xi wants reset, on the basis of “strategic reassurance”, respect for each other’s “core interests” and agreed-on “spheres of influence.”
The latter phrase recalls the unequal treaties the imperialist powers forced on the decadent Ch’ing dynasty beginning in the 1840s. First Britain and then France, Germany, Japan and Russia forced China to grant them extra-territorial powers and exclusive trading rights.
Nor does President Xi equivocate in declaring Beijing’s claim to virtually all of the China Sea. Right now, American bases and political alliances in what the Chinese call “the first island chain” enclosing the China Sea—from the Korean Peninsula, the Kuriles, Japan and Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, down to Australia—block China’s access to the Pacific—to the world ocean—and to great-power rank.
Into the Chinese orbit?
The refusal of the coastal states to call down China for its extravagant China Sea claims signifies their continuing inability to agree on an approach to their gigantic neighbor.
Asean member-states differ widely in their China policies. Most prominently, Cambodia depends on China to protect it against Vietnamese ambitions in Indochina.
For every country in the region, China is a prime trading partner, investment banker, tourist source. Everywhere, overseas Chinese communities spur national enterprise.
Even Australia—oriented to the West less and less—lives with these push-and-pull forces. China is its main trading partner and raw materials market; and the Canberra journalist Hugh White notes that “[t]hese conflicting pressures have generated a rather schizophrenic Australian policy toward China.
“So that, while Australia has an agreement with the US to rotate 2,500 of its troops through its northern port of Darwin, it has also leased the port to a Chinese company linked to the Chinese military.”
What will American recognition of China as a great power entail? Initially, President Xi expects US recognition of China’s rise to great-power status to result in Washington’s acknowledging the legitimacy of Beijing’s security, territorial and economic interests in the China Sea. Strategic recognition would entail Washington’s cession of “greater strategic space” to the Chinese military.
Historically, the US aim in East Asia has always been to prevent a rival power from dominating continental- and island-East Asia. This recognition President Barack Obama had refused to grant. Informal, protracted and intense “shirt-sleeve Summits” starting in June 2014 have all broken up on this issue.
But at least one American observer, the Sinologist Orville Schell, has declared his own belief that the United States should acknowledge China’s entitlement to “some kind of sphere of influence” in the South China Sea.
Perhaps a solution lies in the powers agreeing on a degree of demilitarization for the whole of the China Sea and its adjoining waters. Certainly any solution should leave room for the great powers to assert their legitimate interests in the Asia Pacific. And certainly any solution should enable our middle powers to develop as they wish.