If 2010 was the year China made a series of strategic and tactical moves to strengthen its position in East Asia, 2011 saw the region push back.
Nobody knows this better than Beijing. At the recently concluded East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, China was literally ambushed by the United States, which skillfully coordinated a pushback against China’s assertiveness on the South China Sea. Except for Burma and Cambodia, every other country present at the summit, including Russia, implicitly criticized China’s stance on the South China Sea and called for a multilateral solution, which China has consistently opposed.
The bad news for Beijing actually preceded the Bali summit. The United States and Australia announced an agreement to open a new U.S. Marine base in Darwin, in a move clearly intended to signal to China that, despite its budgetary woes, Washington would double down on its military presence in the region.
Then, as if to show China that it has a few more cards to play, the Obama administration announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would soon be paying a historic visit to Burma to encourage its military junta, which is taking tentative but promising steps toward a transition to democracy, to continue the course. Should the U.S.-Burma rapprochement bear fruit, Burma could be freed from China’s orbit.
Taken together, these three developments have put the United States back into the driver’s seat in East Asia, while China has clearly suffered the most serious strategic setback in the region in years. Some in Beijing may naturally want to push back against the United States’ reassertion of its power in East Asia. But any steps in that direction will certainly escalate tensions with Washington while leaving China further isolated.
A more sensible approach is for China to fundamentally alter its thinking on East Asian security and take concrete steps to regain its diplomatic initiative. China should start with an overall reassessment of U.S.-China relations. Obviously, the rare geopolitical fortune China has enjoyed in East Asia since 9/11 is gone and America’s resolve to keep East Asia as one of its top strategic priorities is bound to give China a great deal of discomfort. However, equating recent moves by Washington, consequential as they are, as decisive steps toward “containing” China would be exaggerating their importance, reading too much animosity into U.S. intentions, and ignoring the Obama administration’s careful balancing act. (Chinese leaders should note that Barack Obama reiterated, at the East Asia Summit, the U.S. policy of engagement with China.)
The middle course between a U.S.-China partnership and outright U.S.-China conflict is a managed U.S.-China competition. There’s no denying that, unless China’s one-party regime becomes a liberal democracy, the United States and China won’t be able to build mutual trust. The Chinese Communist Party’s existential fear of democracy makes it view the U.S. as a political threat, while America’s fundamental rejection of the legitimacy of authoritarian rule means that Washington will regard a powerful one-party regime in China as a security threat. The lack of trust may make cooperation difficult, but doesn’t necessarily lead to conflict.
So, as China’s ascendance and America’s relative decline continue, these two great powers, though economically interdependent, will continue to compete for geopolitical influence. Managing this competition, rather than denying it, is the most challenging task for both Washington and Beijing in the coming decade.
Of course, managing competition requires both countries to rethink their current approach to each other. For China, this involves abandoning its long-held strategy of “befriending afar and attacking near” – or yuanjiao jingong. In the past four decades since Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, Beijing’s grand strategy has been to pivot its foreign policy, correctly, on a stable and cooperative relationship with the United States. But Chinese leaders haven’t been able consistently to follow a complementary and productive regional strategy that would allow China to leverage a stable and cooperative U.S.-China relationship in reconstructing East Asia’s security order. Beijing’s conventional wisdom, if not wishful thinking, has been that a good U.S.-China relationship will give China greater leverage in dealing with its neighbors.