The possibility of a looming new cold war was on most attendees’ minds at the recent Asia-Pacific Roundtable on Asian Security Governance and Order in Kuala Lumpur. Hanging over the meeting was the reality of an increasingly influential and assertive China, and the anxiety this has created in the United States.
What was striking, however, was that, at least among some of the regional states in attendance, the perception is that China’s growing power in the region is wholly benign. Malaysian Prime Minister Razak, for instance, said that he would not belittle “the positive transformational effects China’s ascendancy has and will continue to have on Asia and beyond.” Mahathir Mohammed, the elder statesman of Malaysia, went even further by suggesting that because China has never colonized Asian countries in the way Europe once did, Malaysia might have more reason to fear modern Europe than modern China.
China’s own perceptions about security in Asia and the Pacific called this logic into question. The Chinese Ambassador to ASEAN spelled out the Chinese position on the South China Sea, making light of the repercussions of Chinese assertiveness on this matter. Other Chinese scholars openly admitted that confrontation with the U.S. was inevitable, as the U.S. rebalance towards Asia was aimed squarely at China and posed a direct threat to it, even well admitting that the two countries shared an interest in proceeding with cautious pragmatism. This is likely to generate greater cooperation between the two.
By China’s own admission, moreover, its impressive rise in the region was forcing weaker countries to perform the feat of “putting legs on two boats.” Many ASEAN nations seemed to more or less agree with this assessment. For example, the Indonesian Foreign Minister said that each country in the region is “worried” about having to choose between two competing sides. “We do not want to be put into that position,” FM Marty Natalegawa said. “The Pacific is sufficiently accommodating to provide not only the role of China and the U.S., but of emerging powers too.” An ASEAN spokesperson later added that ASEAN would not like to dictate the roles of different powers in the region. Instead, it would rather act like a flight controller at a busy airport, making sure that all planes arrive and depart without collision.
But sooner or later, countries in the region will have to develop a cohesive Asian strategy to deal with the challenge of Chinese assertiveness. In contrast to many of the ASEAN powers, India and the U.S. seem to understand this reality. This is pushing them towards greater cooperation.
The U.S., for example, has decided to reorient its foreign policy to give greater attention to the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. President Obama was candid about Washington’s’ strategic objectives in the region when he stated, “I am determined that we meet the challenges of the moment responsibly and that we emerge even stronger in a manner that preserves American global leadership and maintains our military superiority.” The real debate in America today is not about the importance of Asia, but rather over what the best methods are for the U.S. to engage the region.
India too understands what’s at stake. To be sure, like the U.S., India has an interest in working with the U.S., China, and other countries in revamping the regional security system in a way that is compatible with India’s own interests. Furthermore, India has tried to smooth over tensions with China by identifying the issues- particularly multilateral ones like international trade, the global financial system, and the environment, in which cooperation with China can be enhanced.
Nonetheless, New Delhi is under no illusions about the potential challenges a rising China creates. At least two of these stretch back decades, and yet, because of their intractable nature, continue to animate Sino-Indian relations. These include: the unsettled border between the two countries and Beijing’s continued support of Pakistan. In addition, China’s military modernization, focusing as it does on the PLA Navy, has also raised the possibility of Beijing coming to dominate the sea-lanes of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This would simply be unacceptable for India.