There’s a wind blowing, and it may just be changing direction. Several developments over recent months indicate that China’s ascendancy in Asia may not go quite as unchallenged as previously believed. A combination of factors, from the United States’ renewed determination to be viewed as a Pacific power to an increasing reluctance on the part of other countries in the region, particularly in East Asia, to be dependent solely on Beijing’s goodwill, have resulted in a geopolitical re-alignment of a sort.
America’s so-called pivot to the east was apparent in October, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that “the world’s strategic and economic center of gravity is shifting east”. In the months that followed, US president Barack Obama visited Australia, signed a new trans-pacific trade agreement that excludes China and announced a new military base down under. The bulk of the US navy’s deployment has already been shifted towards the Pacific and Indian Oceans and future defense budget cuts are not expected to impact any Asian operations. This marks a recognition of Asia’s growing economic clout, especially at a time when Europe’s future looks dire. But it is also an indicator of a confluence of factors aimed at thwarting Beijing’s ambitions of expanding its sphere of influence in Asia-Pacific.
A file photo of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
That China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse has caused some concern that the post-Cold War Pax Americana would soon be overtaken by a Beijing Consensus is hardly news. The handwringing over the dawn of a Chinese century has been pre-occupying minds since before the Great Recession, and since the economy tanked, doomsday predictions have started appearing with ever-greater frequency. However, as recent events show, America and the rest of the West are not alone in fearing China’s inexorable rise.
Beijing’s increasingly assertive diplomacy in the 21st century has led to East Asian countries such as Vietnam and Singapore, and Pacific powers such as Australia, looking to other regional and global powers (the US and India among them) to countervail China’s pre-eminence in the region. The Australian government recently pointed out the inherent hypocrisy in selling uranium to China but not to India and passed measures to begin uranium sales to India. Japan is stepping up military operations in the South China Sea while Indonesia and the Philippines have agreed to deeper military ties with the US. Even Myanmar, ruled by a military junta reliant on Beijing’s good favor, has initiated better relations with the US, culminating in Hillary Clinton’s visit to Yangon last month – the first such visit by a senior US official in nearly 50 years. This came after six months of increasing political liberalization and openness, a move that has confounded many observers as it has come seemingly out of nowhere.
Although China has become more confident in its interactions with the rest of the world, including the US, some of the government’s more belligerent positions have alienated other countries. For instance, China’s hijacking of the climate change negotiations at the Copenhagen summit in 2009 succeeded in rankling both the Europeans, and less obtrusively, some of the other developing nations, including Brazil.
It mishandled the Cheonan incident in 2010 (where a South Korean investigation into the ship’s sinking alleged that a North Korean torpedo was responsible, which China failed to recognise) which annoyed both South Korea and Japan, both of whom then conducted joint naval exercises with the US. These are merely highlights of the ways in which Beijing’s aggressiveness has made life difficult for its nominal (and otherwise) allies, who have also had to kowtow to China’s defensiveness regarding the Dalai Lama, Tibet and Taiwan.
It is unsurprising then that China’s rise is provoking balancing behavior from other nations in the region. In addition to several Pacific Rim countries renewing their ties with the US, Australian, Japan, Vietnam and Singapore have deepened military ties with India. India has also signed free trade agreements with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, South Korea and Singapore. Japan and India are also working towards substantiating their relationship. This cannot be welcome news for Beijing, which will not appreciate New Delhi’s increased prominence in the East Asian littoral.
China has been able to leverage its economic power to, for the most part, get its way in diplomatic situations. But the more it tries to flex its muscles, the more other countries will try to counter its influence. Asian states will attempt to balance China while at the same time seeking better economic ties. Beijing is in no danger of being sidelined in favor of Washington or New Delhi – it is too powerful, both economically and politically, for that – but it will have to learn to finesse its diplomacy so as to cajole rather than threaten if it is to take full advantage of its geopolitical situation. Meanwhile, Asian states on their part are likely to continue to toe the fine line between accommodating and containing China by establishing relations with Beijing’s rivals.
There is an opportunity here for India. New Delhi must take advantage of the suspicion engendered by Beijing to institute better ties with other Asian states. The Look East policy is a welcome step in that direction and India can offer an alternative to China’s sometimes-prickly foreign policy, even if it can’t quite match the latter’s deep pockets. New initiatives apart, there is still room for improvement in relations with Japan and Australia, which have long been needlessly tense. India, which does not have a border on the Pacific, is participating in a trilateral summit with the US and Japan -- a meeting of “Pacific democracies” -- later this month on a “range of Asia-Pacific regional issues”, according to officials in the Obama administration. This is yet another sign of just how serious Washington is about pushing back against China’s growing power in the region. All three countries are vested in checking China’s power, and India can position itself as an fast-growing democratic alternative for the Asian states -- one with whom they share no territorial disputes -- that have so far relied on China as their main trading partner. US references to an “Indo-Pacific” presence reflects India’s growing ambitions in the region and desire to become a player on a bigger stage than just the subcontinet.