Dangerous liaisons threaten Pacific balance
By Satu Limaye
The shirtsleeves summit between Presidents Obama and Xi at Sunnylands,
California earlier this summer, important as it was, was no milestone
in United States-China relations.
However, the meeting has inadvertently confirmed the balance of
relations in the Asia-Pacific region: US-China and US-Asia relations
are better than China-Asia or intra-Asia relations. This balance,
favorable to the United States and also to regional stability and
prosperity, will oscillate in relation to the ups and downs in
US-China relations, but the larger framework - better US
with China and Asia than those between China and Asia and within the
region - will persist.
The threats to this balance do not come from the two most expected
sources: deterioration of US-China relations triggered by growing
strategic mistrust or purported US economic decline and political
Rather, threats to the public good provided by the current
Asia-Pacific balance of relations would come from efforts to push
chimerical and dangerous choices in the region. One such choice
involves Washington or Beijing pressing regional countries to choose
between them. While both governments jockey to achieve priorities and
interests, neither has offered, much less forced on, any regional
country such a crude choice.
The flip side of this choice is that regional countries,
notwithstanding their lesser leverage, seek to get Washington or
Beijing to "choose" them. Up until now, regional countries have tried
to get the most from both, and have succeeded admirably.
Some Asia-Pacific regional countries, while making clear that "we
don't want to choose," have either chosen particularly strong
relations with either the US and China (eg, Cambodia to China and
Singapore to the US) or occasionally sought to see how far they can
push and pull Washington or Beijing toward their positions on
sovereignty and territorial disputes.
Alternatively, there is concern that the US and China might choose to
privilege a bilateral relationship, or G2. A Vietnamese colleague
calls this the "US-PRC grand bargain." Both countries reject such an
arrangement, but efforts to set up a framework for their ties (eg,
"responsible stakeholder," "strategic reassurance," or "new kind of
great power relationship") invariably make nervous outsiders perceive
it as an objective.
Efforts to seriously implement any of these alleged choices would
upset a workable, although admittedly imperfect, situation in
Asia-Pacific international relations.
The current "balance of relations" is not zero-sum or static. It
requires persistent calibration. Absent major missteps, this balance
will continue to the region's advantage for three reasons. First,
American political dysfunctions and funding shenanigans pale in
comparison with the uncertain trajectories of China's polity and
The sum total of US power in the years ahead will be higher than ever
- and multiplied by long-time allies and new friends who will seek to
facilitate the maintenance of US pre-eminence in their own interests.
Of course, US challenges should not be underestimated and China's
overstated, but they also should not be equated.
Secondly, US "asks" in the region are about rules and norms not
sovereignty and territory - and therefore inherently less threatening.
Critics might deem US pursuit of rules/norms as an indirect intrusion
into sovereignty (authoritarian regimes think so), but American
approaches to order and leadership aren't as disruptive as flimsy
Thirdly, American leadership constrained (mostly) by rules and norms
is less worrisome to regional states than China's murky conception of
order (eg, "New Security Concept" or "Nine-dashed lines"?). US
insistence on leadership and pre-eminence does not set off the same
alarms as China's apparent preference for Beijing-led hierarchy as
indicated in its actions and words (such as Foreign Minister Yang
Jiechi's claim that "China is a big country and other countries are
small countries," to the ASEAN foreign ministers in Hanoi, July 2010).
Acquiescence to hierarchical stability in the Asia Pacific may have
worked in a pre-modern age, but it will not work in a networked region
that has both engaged and informed modern nationalisms.
The current "balance of relations" favors US interests, provides space
for China to modernize, and enables regional stability and prosperity.
But if existing dynamics change, and the choices identified above are
pressed through new policies, this balance could be upset, with all
the attendant consequences.
A final choice for US policy in the region is essentially an internal
US debate about how best to secure the country's interests in Asia.
Some argue that getting the US-China relationship right will be
critical to shaping positive outcomes across Asia.
Others counter that it is by managing US alliances and friendships
properly that the US will shape a region consistent with US interests
and values. Each approach has its logic and subtleties about what
constitutes getting China or alliances/friends "right." But this
alleged choice is also mistaken and dangerous to pursue. So far, US
policy has been nimble and adroit.
It has reassured allies and friends in the region without getting
entrapped or excessively alienating China. The "rebalance to Asia" has
made clear that getting relations with both China and allies right is
the key to getting Asia right. A US policy that privileges a rules and
norm-based approach backed by a capacity to counterbalance efforts to
ignore, violate, or unilaterally rewrite existing arrangements is the
"right" way to proceed. The US, China, and the region will continue to
benefit if no country has to choose.
Satu Limaye ([email protected]) is director of the
East West Center in Washington and senior advisor of the Center for
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