Beyond Choosing Between China and the US

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The current "balance of relations" in the Asia Pacific is at risk if the United States and China pressure countries in the region to "choose" between them.

The two-day summit between President Obama and Xi Jinping in California on 8–9 June, while not a milestone in US–China relations, inadvertently confirmed the prevailing ‘balance of relations’ in the Asia Pacific: that US relations with China and Asia are more favourable to regional stability and prosperity than relations between China and Asia or within Asia alone.

The threats to this balance do not come from the deterioration of US–China relations or purported US economic decline as many would expect, but from the perceived pressure placed on countries within the region to ‘choose’ between Washington and Beijing. On the other side of the coin, smaller countries in the region, notwithstanding their weaker bargaining power, have made concerted efforts to get Washington or Beijing to ‘choose’ them. Up until now, regional countries have made reasonable efforts to get the most from both — and have succeeded admirably.

Some argue that in order for the United States to succeed in its ‘pivot to Asia’, it must either ‘get China right’ or ‘get US alliances right’. But either a ‘China first’ or ‘alliances first’ approach would seriously upset the workable and largely constructive set of relationships in the Asia Pacific.

The network of relationships at present will continue to play out to the region’s advantage for three reasons.

First, US political dysfunctions are nothing in comparison with the uncertain trajectories of China’s polity and economy. The sum total of America’s power and influence will continue to grow in the years ahead, multiplied by long-time allies and new friends who will seek to facilitate the maintenance of US pre-eminence for their own interests. Of course, America’s challenges should not be underestimated and China’s overstated, but they also should not be equated.

Second, US demands in the region such as the adoption of a Code of Conduct are about rules and norms rather than sovereignty and territory — as is the case with China’s claims in the South China Sea — and therefore inherently less threatening. Critics might deem the pursuit of rules and norms as an indirect intrusion into sovereignty (certainly authoritarian regimes would think so), but America’s approach to order and leadership does not have the negative resonances of China’s grandiose territorial claims.

Third, American leadership, constrained mostly by rules and norms, is less worrisome to regional states than China’s murky conception of order — the nine-dashed line propagated to substantiate China’s claims in the South China Sea is an example of its interpretations outside of international law.

The current ‘balance of relations’ also favours US interests, provides space for China to modernise and promotes regional stability and prosperity. But if Washington and Beijing press countries in the Asia Pacific to choose between them, the prevailing balance could be upset. Each has certainly worked tirelessly to achieve its priorities and interests in the region, but neither has presented any country with such a crude choice. Some countries in the region, however, have leaned towards either the United States or China through their actions, even while reciting the mantra of ‘we don’t want to choose’. Cambodia, for example, seemed to favour China, especially during last year’s ASEAN Summit when Cambodia refused to discuss the South China Sea dispute at China’s request. If the present dynamics were to change and the United States and China pressured regional countries to choose, or if regional countries sought to make Washington or Beijing choose, the current ‘balance of relations’ in the region would be at risk, threatening stability and prosperity.

Apart from securing its relationships in Asia, the United States must also consider how to best secure its interests in Asia. Some argue that getting the US–China relationship right will be critical to ensuring positive developments across Asia, while others suggest that it is by properly managing its alliances that the United States will shape a region consistent with US interests and values. So far, US policy has been to reassure its allies and friends in the region without alienating China, and the ‘pivot to Asia’ has made clear that getting relations with both China and US allies right is the key to getting Asia right. A US policy that favours a rules-based approach backed by the capacity to counterbalance efforts to ignore, violate or unilaterally rewrite existing arrangements is the right way to proceed. The United States, China and the region will continue to benefit if no country has to choose.

Satu Limaye is Director of the East–West Center in Washington.

This article was first publsihed by the East Asia Forum.