When they met in California last weekend, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama discussed a long list of disputes from trade to climate change to cyber-hacking. Both were anxious to get along, and only small steps forward will directl
The unresolved question of their relations in the Asia-Pacific region hovered in the background. Xi touched on this by saying, “The vast Pacific Ocean has enough space” for both countries. Underlying this was Chinese resentment about the US “pivot”, or “rebalancing” of military and diplomatic assets, to Asia.
Many in Beijing see this move as a thinly disguised attempt to encircle and deny China space in the region. Addressing the fundamental issue of accommodating a rising China must await another occasion. Timing indeed may prove critical.
At present, Asian nations like the Philippines and Vietnam have welcomed the US move because China has grown more assertive recently about its claims in the resource-rich South China Sea. Similarly, tensions over disputed islands further north have prompted Japan to embrace its alliance with America and move to bolster its own defence capabilities.
It’s easy to forget how recent many of these tensions are. The arguments simmered but remained in abeyance for decades. From the mid 1990s and into the early 2000s, China successfully reached out to the nations of Southeast Asia and collaborated with them on infrastructure, finance and a free trade agreement.
Even Tokyo made efforts to get on with China then. The first time he was in office, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to improve ties with Beijing, and so did the opposition Democratic Party of Japan when it came to power. Japanese leaders recognised the deep economic interdependence that binds the region’s two largest economies.
For the decade after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, relations between China and most of its neighbours grew stronger and deeper – largely without American involvement. The current tensions amongst Asians may be the deviation, rather than the norm.
This should give pause to America’s regional policy, post-pivot. Asia is not looking for a return to the era of unquestioned dominance, where America is the sole power, setting the agenda. Asians don’t endorse the American rebalancing – not for the long term and at any price.
Witness the regional economy, which continues to outperform the rest of the world. The first fear for Asians is a possible Chinese slowdown. What happens in the US is secondary. The essential future direction is towards deeper Asian integration, rather than any re-emphasis on the American consumer – notwithstanding the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks being pushed by President Obama.
America’s security role is more clearly appreciated. But this is on the back of current tensions. If a Code of Conduct is negotiated and if talks on mutually developing undersea resources in the South China Sea and other maritime regions come to anything, Asian fears could ease.
Most must realistically acknowledge that, unless current trends sharply change, China will be the dominant presence in the region. No one accepts being a vassal state. But neither do most demand full equality. Those countries that wish otherwise – like Japan and India – must ramp up their own armed forces rather than solely relying on the Pentagon.
Asians may yet accept that China will in time lead the region, but not that it rules.
One model for that kind of leadership has evolved in Southeast Asia. In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the public emphasis is on consensus, yet behind the scenes bigger economies like Indonesia and Singapore quietly have influence. Working in this way, the group has emerged – even if not without criticism – as a relatively cohesive and peaceable body.
Whether it is the US now, or China prospectively, Asia needs a model of leadership that goes beyond the hegemony of any one power – even as some are more equal than others. As presidents Obama and Xi follow up their summit and seek a better understanding of their roles in the region, that acknowledgement can mean they have one less thing to argue over.
Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of “Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America.”