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Securing China-US Relations Within the Wider Asia-Pacific

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Securing China-US Relations Within the Wider Asia-Pacific

The United States and China must craft a durable consensus that prioritizes regional stability and coexistence.

Securing China-US Relations Within the Wider Asia-Pacific
Credit: Depositphotos

“Every ‘world order’ expresses an aspiration to permanence,” wrote the late and great Henry Kissinger in his 1994 masterpiece “Diplomacy,” “yet the elements that comprise it are in constant flux.” The current U.S.-dominated global order is no exception. Its hub-and-spoke deterrence architecture in the Asia-Pacific and, for that matter, the foundation and framework of China-U.S. ties, are not set in stone. 

One might also add to Kissinger’s maxim that every world order contains the seeds of its own dissolution. The present global order is facing multiple threats. While these threats are not inescapable, they must be handled with flexibility and sensitivity. 

Looming Threats

The first threat is that the incumbent Western powers will be unable, or unwilling, to underwrite the global system’s requirements and the major rising powers will be incapable of offsetting this deficiency in providing global public goods. This is not inevitable. If the major states discharge their global responsibilities credibly and cooperatively, we will not see a repeat of the breakdown of order in the 1930s. 

However, the West’s semi-privatization of the international economic architecture – a public good once premised on openness and universalism – within “like-minded” minilateral clubs today and its weaponization of this architecture against adversaries and bystanders, bodes poorly. Rising political populism and economic nationalism in the West also threaten the bloc’s ability to sustain the present global order. 

Second, the “networking” of the United States’ hub-and-spoke regional architecture could lead to arms races and periodic tests of strength that eventually culminate in a full-blown crisis. It is not self-evident that this will happen. The Indo-Pacific region is not a single organic continuum. Akin to the localized equilibriums of pre-18th century Europe, the Indo-Pacific reflects a set of regional balances where the core security interests of its “flanking powers,” Japan and India (neither of which has historically balanced Chinese power), is highly disaggregated. 

However, minilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific, such as AUKUS, are ceasing to serve as building blocks of peace and stability, unlike ASEAN. Contrary to the role and purpose of regional architecture, they are becoming a tool of containment and division. Close-ended arrangements may furnish a raw balance of power but cannot distil unity out of diversity.    

Third, the United States. and China could succumb to rivalry now that the era of strategic engagement that Kissinger had conceived has drawn to a close. This is not axiomatic. An intermediate equilibrium based on self-restraint and new legitimizing guiding principles is realizable, but its tailoring will require exquisite skill in diplomatic embroidery. 

That being said, it is implausible to expect that 200 years of Anglo-American dominance and a half-millennium of Western ascendancy will be ceded graciously to a culturally alien great power protagonist, and one with a Leninist system to boot. In China, though, Washington faces a peer that will in time defeat the core strategic proposition on which U.S. superiority has heretofore rested: that America will always be able to meet the strategic challenge of the day from a position of national strength.   

Securing Peace and Stability

How then can these thorny issues be resolved? Going forward, the United States and China must craft a durable consensus that prioritizes regional stability and coexistence, keeps tensions within a manageable range, encourages communication, and privileges a constructive working relationship in areas of common interest without trampling on the other party’s system, values, and regional commitments. 

The “guardrails”-building process that U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping inaugurated in Bali in November 2022 was a good starting point. Should Biden secure re-election in 2024, Washington and Beijing should seize the opportunity to memorialize the guiding principles of their revamped relationship in a joint communiqué or “basic principles” agreement. The aim should be to place divergent policy positions within a steadying framework that strikes a balance between the U.S. and China’s respective interests and the requirements of the Asia-Pacific system at large. 

Washington and Beijing should also pluralize and nest their recent areas of engagement, such as the “early harvest” outcomes that they consolidated in San Francisco in November 2023, within a broader set of Asia-Pacific stakeholders. Securing the cooperation of more stakeholders will be more effective – and will also promote greater accountability from both great powers, as their multilateral commitments will likely be less vulnerable to the ups and downs of their bilateral relationship.

Take, for example, their agreement to initiate a dialogue on the perils of artificial intelligence (AI), including ensuring that unsupervised AI is never allowed to dictate command-and-control systems related to the use of a nuclear weapon. The two sides should expand the dialogue to the role of AI in target selection and decision-making linked to kinetic and cyber warfare and, utilizing the ADMM-plus Experts’ Working Group (EWG) framework, promote rulemaking on military applications of AI among a broad set of regional participants. 

Washington and Beijing have also recently released preliminary governance frameworks for AI. Working with regional economic partners under the aegis of APEC, both sides should now craft a baseline regulatory framework for regional AI governance, anchored to principles laid out by the United Nations’ High-level Advisory Body on AI.  

A second example is their agreement to resume military-to-military communications at the highest levels. Both sides should go a step further and, in conjunction with key regional states, initiate a work program to draft model regulations related to unmanned autonomous systems at sea. Naval platforms without crews do not enjoy the protections of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea as they are not classified as “vessels.” Yet, lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) permeate the maritime environment and when conflict arrives, they will be at the forefront of hostilities – as Kyiv’s drones have amply demonstrated in the Black Sea. Better to write the rules in peacetime, and thereby limit the scope for unintended escalatory tensions too.   

Finally, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand – the three major (self-proclaimed) non-claimant ASEAN states of the South China Sea region – should band together and diplomatically propose and underwrite a win-win outcome to the festering Second Thomas Shoal dispute (the United States is unfit to lead on account of the Obama administration’s botched mediation on Scarborough Shoal in 2012). As per the arrangement, Manila must tow away the fracturing tank landing ship BRP Sierra Madre from the shoal; Beijing must provide a solemn undertaking not to occupy the shoal thereafter (as a low tide elevation, it doesn’t even count as “territory”). Washington can thus be spared the embarrassment of having failed to provide any materially useful support to its ally to retain control of the shoal – for want of the Philippines-U.S. treaty obligations being triggered. A little bit of compromise from all interested parties could go a long way.  

The United States and China bear a responsibility to rise above parochial visions of ideology and short-term interests and secure the continuing peace, prosperity, and stability of the Asia-Pacific region. The steps outlined above might be a good place to start.  

This essay was first published in the Asian Peace Programme (APP) webpage. The APP is housed in the National University of Singapore (NUS).