Commentary / World

A U.S.-China great power competition?

by Satohiro Akimoto

Contributing Writer

In early October, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a remarkable broadside against China — one that could be remembered as an inflection point in the world’s most consequential bilateral relationship. Asian capitals, including Tokyo, had better take a close look at it.

Speaking at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, Pence slammed China with a laundry list of grievances: Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea, intellectual property theft, engaging in economic statecraft with neighboring countries, persecuting religious groups at home, the creation of a nationwide surveillance system, pressuring Hollywood to produce pro-China movies, meddling in the U.S. midterm elections — the list goes on.

For sure, Pence made a passing reference to U.S. President Donald Trump’s vision for “America and China reaching out to one another in a spirit of openness and friendship.” But overall, the vice president’s speech is widely regarded as the toughest rhetoric against China’s “whole-of-government approach” that is eroding America’s interests and way of life.

Previous U.S. administrations maintained cautious optimism about China — that if it is engaged, the world’s most populous country would eventually open up, embrace democratic values and become a “responsible stakeholder” in world affairs.

Those wishful days are over, Pence declared. Washington will adopt a harder line to demand changes from China, rather than hoping that Beijing would one day change its behavior. The U.S. “will not be intimidated and will not stand down,” Pence thundered.

Pence’s call to stand up to China’s economic and military statecraft should not be seen as a cursory complaint for short-term consumption among Washington’s chattering class. Rather, it is a result of long-term inter-agency efforts to devise a grand new approach toward China.

The basis of this line of thinking is the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy which was released last December, in which China was portrayed as the champion of “the repressive visions of the world,” whose “dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states” in the region.

Washington’s wrath with China is likely to remain for years to come. That’s because such views are not confined to the Trump White House; it is a view that is increasingly gaining bipartisan support in Capitol Hill.

Senators and congressmen from committees on foreign relations, the armed services, economy and trade, among others, agree that China’s aggressive ways must be met with American resolve.

For example, Sen. Corey Gardner, chairman of the Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity, along with lawmakers like Democrat Ed Markey and Republican Marco Rubio, are proposing a bill called the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act. The bill is designed to prevent a Chinese hegemon by funding diplomatic and military efforts to “demonstrate U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region and the rules-based international order.”

Furthermore, America’s harder line against China is not just limited to Washington; it is increasingly being shared by the private sector. Both the public and private sectors, particularly in the areas of economy, trade, technology, innovation, have been careful not to openly antagonize China for business concerns. That has changed, and U.S. industries are taking off their kid gloves.

With all of this taken together, Pence’s speech indicates that the U.S. intends to engage in “great power competition” with China. That leads to the question: what would be the fallout of America’s competition with China, and will Asian countries suffer collateral damage?

At first, it sounds like a good idea for many Asian nations that the United States is finally getting tough with China and uphold international liberal values like the rule of law, democracy, sovereignty, basic human rights and a robust civil society.

But Asia is a diverse region with diverse concerns. Some nations have serious territorial disputes with China. Some nations face direct military threats of China. Some are under economic influence of China. Some nations are suffering from environmental deterioration originating from China. Some are concerned with religious, social and political freedom in China.

There is a general belief among many Asian nations that China at present can’t play the role which the U.S. has played in the liberal democratic order in the postwar period.

Yet at the same time, Asian nations are anxious about America’s new aggressive approach to China. While the U.S. is literally thousands of kilometers away from China, Asian countries are geographically in striking distance of Beijing’s wrath.

For another, Asia’s relationship with China is complex and more nuanced, and is even beneficial mainly in terms of trade and investment for Asian countries. While the U.S. is determined to confront China, Asian nations would prefer a non-confrontational and even cooperative way to deal with Beijing. In short, Asian nations are almost in unison that they can’t afford to make an enemy out of China.

A worrisome sign is that should tension between the two superpowers escalate, Washington could create a situation in which Asian nations would be forced to choose between the U.S. and China. This is the situation that Asian nations want to avoid at all cost. So if the U.S. takes an overly hostile stance to China, there is no guarantee that they would choose America over China, in spite of sharing common liberal values like rule of law, democracy and human rights.

Washington would do well to take a more nuanced approach to Asian nations to gain support for its harder stance against China.

Pence declared that he would, on behalf of the president, would deliver the message that “America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific has never been stronger” at the ASEAN and APEC summits next month. To that end, Asian nations, including Japan, would welcome a renewed American commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific with open arms — so long as Washington’s muscular rhetoric is not just about tough talk, but with the smarts that allows for a nuanced approach to deal with China.

Satohiro Akimoto is president and founder of Washington Insights, a geopolitical risk analysis and consulting firm. Previously he was senior vice president and general manager at Mitsubishi Corp.’s Washington office.