PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND – The steady erosion of U.S. politico-economic primacy in the Asia-Pacific region continues unabated. It has two sources: The first is China’s growing wealth and power. The second is America’s continuing distraction by wars as well as President Donald Trump’s desire to disrupt Washington’s existing alliances and his refusal to address pressing socio-economic issues at home.
Simply put, where the U.S. acts, at best, in a very distracted manner, China is focused.
While U.S. credibility in Asia is steadily diminishing, there continues to be an irrational belief in Washington that increased U.S. defense spending will alter or reverse this trend.
This is preposterous. China and the U.S. have now entered a bilateral arms race. The naval warfare arm of the People’s Liberation Army will eventually consist of nearly 500 ships of various classes, dwarfing — in numbers, if not in combat power — what the U.S. Navy can call upon in its 7th and 3rd Fleets.
China’s growing military weight as well as doubts about the staying power of the U.S., exacerbated by White House rhetoric, have caused China’s neighbors, including long-standing U.S. allies, to begin to reposition themselves.
New security partnerships
They are all looking for ways to adjust to evolving strategic realities. Their goal is threefold: They want to retain as much autonomy as possible, avoid antagonizing their powerful Chinese neighbor and offset the likely continuing retreat of U.S. influence in the region both by building up their own defense capabilities and seeking new security partnerships.
That is why Japan, for example, is developing military capabilities that can either support the U.S. or allow it to act autonomously, as Tokyo chooses. To counter China, Japan is also working toward rapprochement with Russia and security and intelligence partnerships with India and Vietnam.
Malaysia has begun a campaign to strengthen its ties to China. Some others, like Cambodia and Laos, have moved firmly into the Chinese orbit. And Australia is considering how best to cope with the probable future deference of still more Asian countries to China.
Far beyond military matters, the key to it all is that, in a region of 4.4 billion people, most supply chains converge in China. That means that China is pretty much the deciding factor when it comes to economic growth dynamics.
That, of course, is the coinage political leaders in any country are concerned about the most, if for no other reason than securing their own legitimacy and/or popular support.
Hence their readiness to expand their respective nation’s commercial involvement with, and exposure to, China.
China’s coercive diplomacy
As China’s economic centrality to the Asia-Pacific economies has grown, a distinctive Chinese style of coercive diplomacy has emerged. It complements the manner in which China uses force. Far beyond Asia itself, any nation seeking to cope with rising Chinese power needs to study and understand this.
To give but one example: Unlike most other countries, Beijing habitually applies economic sanctions — without announcing, confirming or denying them. It sets no specific conditions for ending them.
This allows China’s leaders to adjust or end its coercive measures without being held to account for their results or the lack thereof. The imprecision of Chinese demands leaves the target of these measures to guess what it must do to end them.
This smartly puts the onus for a solution on the victim of Chinese pressure. Sometimes, it even leads to factions within the targeted country’s leadership essentially “negotiating” among themselves (rather than with China) about what might satisfy Beijing. This obviously plays into the hands of the Chinese negotiators.
‘Face’ and sovereignty
China’s growing power enables it to bully others if it wishes to do so. Sometimes it does. But its inclination to do so is restrained. China actually clings to the Westphalian fiction of the sovereign equality of states, no matter their size.
The reason why it does so is closely related to the concept of “face,” the key norm of Chinese society. In essence, “face” and deference to the sovereign equality of states have melded in the Chinese mind.
That is why China ostentatiously lavishes the same formal hospitality and official attention on mini-states as on great powers.
Defending the U.N. Charter
This also explains why the United Nations suits Chinese psychology so well. While the U.N. enshrines the legal principle of sovereign equality in its General Assembly, it also pragmatically acknowledges the reality of a hierarchy of power in its Security Council.
This helps to explain why China has become such a defender of the U.N. Charter. Beijing’s proposed “new type of great power relations” can be read as an attempt to gain agreement to a “face-based” global order consistent with the U.N. Charter.
Growing U.S.-China rivalry
The Sino-American rivalry — political, economic and military — seems destined to intensify. Despite much shadowboxing by the U.S. armed forces, American military primacy in the Western Pacific will gradually waste away. As both the costs of U.S. trans-Pacific engagement and the risks of armed conflict will rise, the U.S. finds itself in a real pinch.
The states of the Asia-Pacific region, for their part, will hedge. They will either draw closer to Beijing, cleave to Washington, or — more likely — try to get out of the middle between Chinese and Americans.
At the same time, most of them will not repudiate their alliances with the U.S. Why give up something for nothing? Even so, they will rely less on the U.S. and act more independently of it.
Chas Freeman was the main interpreter for U.S. President Richard Nixon in his 1972 visit to China and was the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992. He is currently a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.