How Asia’s geopolitical landscape will evolve over the next couple of decades is not easy to foresee. But it is apparent that an increasingly assertive China is unwittingly reinforcing America’s role in Asia as the implicit guarantor of security and stability.
There are at least four possible Asian security scenarios. The first is the rise of a Sino-centric Asia, as desired by Beijing. China seeks a multipolar world but a unipolar Asia. By contrast, the United States desires a unipolar world but a multipolar Asia. A second scenario is of the U.S. remaining Asia’s principal security anchor. A third possibility is the emergence of a constellation of Asian states with common interests working together to ensure both power equilibrium and an Asia that is not unipolar. A fourth scenario is of an Asia characterized by several resurgent powers, including Japan, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and a reunified Korea.
Of the four scenarios, the least unlikely is the first one. China’s neighbors increasingly are uneasy about its growing power and assertiveness. While Beijing aspires to shape a Sino-centric Asia, its actions hardly make it a credible candidate for Asian leadership.
Brute power cannot buy leadership. After all, leadership can come not from untrammeled power, but from other states’ consent or tacit acceptance. If leadership could be built on brute force, schoolyard bullies would be class presidents.
In any event, China’s power may be vast and rapidly growing, yet it lacks the power of compulsion. In other words, China does not have the capability to militarily rout or compel any rival, let alone enforce its will on Asia.
As China seeks to translate its economic clout into major geopolitical advantage in Asia, a nation that once boasted of “having friends everywhere” finds that its accumulating power might inspire awe, but its actions are spurring new concerns and fears. Which states will accept China as Asia’s leader? Six decades of ruthless repression has failed to win China acceptance even in Tibet and Xinjiang, as the Tibetan and Uighur revolts of 2008 and 2009 attested.
Leadership involves much more than the possession of enormous economic and military power. It demands the power of ideas that can galvanize others. Such power also serves as the moral veneer to the assertiveness often involved in the pursuit of any particular cause.
The Cold War, for example, was won by the U.S. and its allies not so much by military means as by spreading the ideas of political freedom and market capitalism to other regions that, in the words of strategic thinker Stanley A. Weiss, “helped suck the lifeblood out of communism’s global appeal,” making it incapable of meeting the widespread yearning for a better and more-open life.
China has shown itself good at assertive promotion of national interests and in playing classical balance-of-power geopolitics. But to assume the mantle of leadership in Asia by displacing the U.S., it must do more than just pursue its own interests or contain potential peer rivals. The overly assertive policies and actions of a next-door rising power make Asian states look to a distant protector. With its defense spending having grown almost twice as fast as its GDP, China is now beginning to take the gloves off, confident that it has acquired the necessary muscle.
This has been exemplified by several developments — from China’s inclusion of the South China Sea in its “core” national interests on a par with Taiwan and Tibet to its efforts to present the Yellow Sea as its virtually exclusive military-operation zone. Add to the picture large-scale naval exercises in recent months first off Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, then in the South China Sea and most recently in the Yellow Sea.
China also has increasingly questioned India’s sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern Indian state that Beijing calls “Southern Tibet” and claims largely as its own. Indian defense officials have reported a rising number of Chinese military incursions across the 4,057-km Himalayan border.
Through its actions, China indeed has proven a diplomatic boon for Washington in strengthening and expanding U.S. security arrangements in Asia. South Korea has tightened its military alliance with the U.S., Japan has backing away from an effort to get the U.S. to move its marine air base out of Okinawa, and India, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, among others, have drawn closer to the U.S.
In terms of power-projection force capabilities or the range of military bases and security allies in Asia, no power or combination of powers is likely to match the U.S. in the next quarter of a century. While America’s continued central role in Asia is safe, the long-term viability of its security arrangements boils down to one word: Credibility. The credibility of America’s security assurances to allies and partners, and its readiness to stand by them when it comes to the crunch, will determine the strength and size of its security-alliance system in Asia in the years ahead. The third and fourth scenarios can unfold even if the U.S. remains the principal security anchor for Asia. A number of Asian countries have already started building mutually beneficial security cooperation on a bilateral basis, thereby laying the groundwork for a potential web of interlocking strategic partnerships.
A combination of the second and third scenarios is a plausible prospect, but it demands forward-looking policies in Washington, Tokyo, New Delhi, Seoul, Hanoi, Jakarta, Canberra and elsewhere. A constellation of Asian states linked by strategic cooperation and with close ties to the U.S. has become critical to help institute power stability in Asia. America’s continued role as a credible guarantor of Asian security, however, is a function not of its military strength but political will in Washington.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research.