Photo Credit: AFP
According to a traditional Chinese idiom, ‘one mountain cannot abide two tigers.’
Capitals across Asia are urgently asking whether this law of the jungle applies equally to international relations. Will a weary Washington soon be forced to concede regional leadership to a bullish Beijing?
Despite Chinese sabre-rattling and calls from some Western commentators for the United States to make way for Chinese regional leadership, Washington should not let the Chinese tiger claim the mountain.
A US military and diplomatic drawdown in Asia would spark destabilising fears of Chinese domination and would be a premature concession to Beijing.
With US leadership underwriting Asia’s relative peace and stability since World War II, Asian nations are balking at the prospect of Chinese hegemony.
Japan’s violent and acrimonious history with China and the massive power asymmetry between the two countries mean that waning US power in Asia would prompt deep unease in Tokyo. Japan is already expanding the mandate of its ‘self-defence’ force and has ended almost two decades of stagnant defence spending with a 2 percent increase in its military budget this year.
In the absence of a credible US counterweight to Chinese power, South Korea would be left in a perilous position, sandwiched as it is between two massive and mutually hostile powers, and bordering a likely emboldened and nuclear-armed North Korea.
Taiwanese reunification with the ‘motherland’ has been a central plank of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology since the nationalist Kuomintang withdrew to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War. One of Asia’s most successful liberal democracies could therefore suffer a forced repatriation to the authoritarian mainland without the constraining influence of US military power in the Western Pacific.
Meanwhile, Vietnam, the Philippines and other territorial claimants in the South China Sea would suffer revitalised Chinese strongarm tactics and have their maritime possessions seized by the Middle Kingdom. Beijing now regularly uses naval brinksmanship and sabotage to bully Hanoi and Manila over disputed waters, and these tactics may become even more aggressive.
Having previously fought battles along its border with China, India is also nervous about Chinese expansionism. The need to hedge against rising Chinese power has already pushed New Delhi to increase its defence budget by 12 per cent in 2013 and develop strategic partnerships with Beijing’s historical enemies, most notably Hanoi and Tokyo.
Moreover, notwithstanding the People’s Liberation Army’s periodic strident denunciations of Washington’s international influence, Beijing is not actually calling for a US diplomatic and military drawdown in Asia.
As Le Yucheng, Chinese assistant foreign minister, has said: “China does not want to and cannot push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific … The Pacific Ocean is vast enough to accommodate the coexistence and cooperation between these two big countries.”
In keeping with previous Chinese foreign policy doctrines of ‘peaceful development’ and ‘setting aside dispute[s] and pursuing joint development,’ Beijing’s priority is to prosper alongside Washington and not to assert regional supremacy.
The CCP has “no intention of overthrowing the [current] international system or setting up an entirely new one,” says Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States. Instead, Beijing wants to integrate China into the ‘existing global order.’
Of course, given China’s quest to regain international power and prestige and the CCP’s obscurantism, it is unclear whether conciliatory statements from senior officials reflect Beijing’s genuine intentions.
Indeed, such reassurances may seem duplicitous in the context of China’s massive military expansion, its gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea, and its brazen foreign policy initiatives like the Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea.
However, even if China is a revisionist power intent on eventually challenging Asia’s US-led international order, it can afford to be patient.
Overthrowing the strategic status quo now would only expedite the (nearly) inevitable. With the Chinese economy and military budget expected to continue their dizzying rise, China will be the world’s most powerful nation in a mere 20 to 30 years.
Beyond a slightly accelerated timetable, Beijing has little to gain from provoking a hasty US military and diplomatic exit from Asia.
As China’s global ambitions grow in step with its expanding military might and economic influence, US primacy in Asia may eventually become untenable.
Yet for now at least, maintaining US leadership is prudent policy.
It will allay alarm about Chinese coercion and satisfy Beijing’s preference for a continuation of the strategic status quo of free markets, free trade, and freedom of navigation.
Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of Preserving Peace as China Rises I.