The Western Pacific is currently facing a difficult problem: how to accommodate China’s rising aspirations in a region where the United States has held primacy since the Cold War’s end.

Is the U.S. determined to maintain dominance in the Asia-Pacific region? Or is it willing to operate through multilateral forums that allow all involved parties to help set the rules? The way this issue plays out will determine whether peace will continue to prevail across the Pacific.

It is difficult to see the stationing of 2,500 U.S. Marines in Darwin, Australia — a decision announced by U.S. President Barack Obama on his recent tour of Asia — as anything more than a symbolic gesture, a provocative reminder that the U.S. is determined to stay in the region. America’s purpose, however, remains unclear.

Across the Asia-Pacific region, China’s rise is viewed as a welcome development, but one that requires China to play within internationally accepted rules. That dictum, of course, should apply to everyone. But tensions will inevitably arise if China has no say in the creation of these rules.

It is difficult to predict how America’s role in the region will evolve. China’s economic and military power is rising. The U.S., on the other hand, continues to dominate militarily, while its economic influence is waning. In any case, China will invariably respond harshly to U.S. efforts to step up its military presence in the region. Containing China is not the answer to Asia’s security questions.

The Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, and the South China Sea’s islands and sea lanes are all issues of potential dispute between the U.S. and China. But while these issues are important, both sides should pursue diplomatic efforts to minimize Sino-American rivalry over them — and thus avoid embarking on a new Cold War.

Under current conditions, responding to China’s rise with military force would be unwelcome. China is modernizing its military and intends to become a significant sea power, prompting many China observers to call for greater transparency. But it is doubtful that the U.S. offers China much transparency about its own military capabilities. To put the issue in perspective, the U.S. defense budget constitutes 43 percent of all military spending worldwide, whereas China’s expenditure represents a little over 7 percent.

No country will talk openly about its military capacity in anything but the broadest terms. Too many observers forget that China’s nuclear force is a deterrent only — far too small to be a first-strike force. And China is among the first countries prepared to make a no-first-use pledge, provided other nuclear powers reciprocate.

China has demonstrated no interest in emulating either the 19th-century European imperial powers, or Japan’s imperial efforts in the first half of the 20th century. Anxiety about such ambitions ignores China’s history. The Chinese remember all too painfully the unequal treaties imposed by the Western powers on China and Japan in the 19th and early 20th centuries. An alliance between the U.S., Japan, Australia and possibly India designed to contain China would be greeted by the Chinese with that history firmly in mind.

China will most likely regard the cooperation agreement recently announced by the Japanese and Indian defense ministers as a response to U.S. pressure. Its leaders will again suggest that a policy of containment is being pursued, and that this Cold War strategic concept is inimical to peaceful development in the Western Pacific.

While the historical background is important, the West’s strategic position depends on today’s actions. For example, China has helped — maybe not enough — with the problems presented by North Korea.

To reduce tensions in the region, perhaps the U.S. should initiate long-avoided direct talks with North Korea, which could help to resolve the security issues posed by that country’s regime.

Furthermore, the Spratly Islands dispute should be resolved through international adjudication. The islands, claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, are valuable because of their oil reserves and commercial fishing industry. It is critical that the countries claiming sovereignty over the islands abide by international law and commit to keeping the area’s sea-lanes open.

Political philosopher Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power — diplomacy, not force of arms — is the best way to pursue these objectives. Of course, diplomacy needs to be backed by strength, but the U.S. has plenty without militarizing the Asia-Pacific region more than it already has. Peaceful resolution of these conflicts requires giving China a role in the decision-making process, which implies that the U.S. and China alike relinquish any desire for regional primacy.

During the first Taiwan Straits crisis in 1954, China began shelling the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, threatening to “liberate” Taiwan. As the U.S. contemplated a possible nuclear attack on China, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies quietly told U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, “If there is a war over Taiwan, it is your affair and not ours.” Menzies was right. He understood the distinction between U.S. objectives and Australia’s national interests.

The U.S. will never place a large land army on the Asian mainland again. Wars cannot be won from the air alone, and the U.S. will not start a nuclear contest. The stationing of U.S. Marines in northern Australia thus appears pointless: These troops have no conceivable reason to be there. In addition, they have divided Australian public opinion unnecessarily on the vital issue of the country’s security.

Asia today presents a completely new and unique set of circumstances. The dilemmas arising from these circumstances demand new solutions, not obsolete Cold War-era concepts.

Malcolm Fraser served as prime minister of Australia from 1975 to 1983. © 2011 Project Syndicate

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.