Is Asia afraid of China? edit

Nov. 29, 2011

At the 6th East Asian Summit in Bali on 19th November the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, found himself the butt of almost universal criticism from the leaders of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) both for Chinese territorial claims and recent provocative actions in the South China Sea. Supported by the United States as well as India, Australia and Japan, the ASEAN countries insisted on multilateral negotiations over these questions, while the Chinese remained firm on the principle of bilateral solutions in which they would have a distinct asymmetrical advantage.

Certainly there is a wariness of Chinese intentions, a wariness exacerbated by several affirmations of Chinese hard power in the South China Sea and bellicose declarations in the media in Beijing close to the Communist Party, such as Global Times. Seen from the south there appears to be a willingness on the part of the Chinese regime to sacrifice a decade of demonstrating its good neighbourly intentions in Southeast Asia, to appease hard line elements in the PLA and also the hyper-nationalists in the blogger sphere that it, itself, has nurtured. As a response, the heavily publicized announcement by President Obama on 16th November during his first presidential visit to Canberra that 2,500 marines would be stationed on a rotational basis in the northern Australian city of Darwin was interpreted as a replay of the Cold War containment strategy. Despite the modest numbers, it is the first new basing of troops in East Asia and the Pacific since the Vietnam War and follows on another significant development, namely exercises between elements of the US Seventh Fleet and the Vietnamese Navy earlier in 2011.

The East Asian Summit was just one of three held in November 2011, summits that have seen the symbolic configuration of a new(er) world order substantively manifest. The meeting in Bali was preceded by the G20 in Cannes on 3rd and 4th November and on the 12th and 13th the annual APEC Summit in Honolulu. At the G20, which was seen as having been hijacked by the crisis in the eurozone, Europeans were more or less admonished by Obama as well as his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, to solve their own problems. On the other side of the globe, a rather upbeat APEC Summit, involved negotiations for a Trans–Pacific Partnership, a putative free trade area involving, as well as the US, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and, most importantly, as announced on 11th November, Japan (lien avec papier Tiberghien) The message conveyed in Obama’s central role in both the APEC and East Asia Summit was that the United States has returned and is, and will remain, an Asia-Pacific power. Yet his Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton’s declaration in Foreign Policy (November 2011) that the 21st century is indeed America’s Pacific Century is hardly startling. Just over a century ago President Theodore Roosevelt made a similar claim and, indeed, since the extension of the frontier to California in the early 19th century followed by Admiral Perry’s forced opening of trade with Japan and the annexation of the Philippines in 1898, the United States has always lived with two windows on the world, one to the Atlantic and one to the Pacific. To state the obvious, what has fundamentally changed in a transformation accelerated by the present global financial crisis, is the whole international context, with the shift in economic (and political) power to an East Asia increasingly boosted by China’s acquisition of global power status. What for the West may be a shock, for the Chinese regime this new power configuration merely represents a return to the statu quo ante prior to 1850 one interrupted by 150 years of state humiliation by the same West..

Seen from Europe, a competition for supremacy is at play in Asia and the Pacific between the United States and China, necessarily engendering both winners and losers. Seen from within Asia and Australasia the question is rather how to benefit from such a competition.he foreign relations pursued in Asia and Australasia has long historical antecedents. One could cite the Thai King Mongkuk’s dictum in the mid nineteenth century of the need to “swim between the crocodile (the French Empire in Indochina) and the whale” (the British Empire in Burma and the Malay peninsula) in order to ensure, successfully, Siam’s independence. After Indonesia’s own declaration of independence, in 1948 its then Vice President, Mohammad Hatta, enunciated a policy of menayung antara dua karang (rowing between two reefs) to ensure that the non-aligned archipelagic nation would not be an object of international conflict. Most important, however, is the widespread acceptance of the security underpinnings of the flying geese model of export-oriented industrialisation developed and applied in Japan from the 1950s, later becoming one of the keys to the whole Asian Economic Miracle. From a geopolitical perspective, such a model comprises three elements. Firstly, it implies minimal, but sufficient, expenditure on defence in order to plough resources into economic development. Secondly, it involves sub-contracting security to a hegemonic power, the United States, whose own domestic economic model, on the contrary, requires maintaining, as President Eisenhower put it, a strong military-industrial complex. Thirdly, it implies a clear differentiation between partners capable of promoting growth and development - and thus economic security - and those with a capacity to provide a defence umbrella.

From the 1960s onwards the United States and Europe were capable of providing the markets and the FDI to ensure Southeast Asia’s, and Australasia’s, economic growth and development. Today, given China’s renewed economic pre-eminence, political leaderships have strategically shifted ostensibly to “followership” in regard to the new leader, the Middle Kingdom. However, this “followership” has the caveat that, echoing the times of tributary relations and suzerainty prior to Western intrusion in Asia in the mid nineteenth century, it allows maximum autonomy to the seemingly vassal states. Foreign direct investment in these countries from Japan, Europe and the United States continues to far outweigh that emanating from China. Moreover economic ties with China do not obviate tensions in a host of areas: from the competing territorial claims and competition for resources in the South China Sea mentioned above to the oft-neglected, and more potentially destabilizing, competition over the waters of the Mekong. In this context the need for a security guarantor from the gendarme of the Pacific, the United States, becomes even more desirable.

Thus, facilitated by the strategic considerations of their own national interest by the “followers”, China’s rise has engendered the US’s return and its reaffirmation as the pre-eminent security actor in Asia and the Pacific. It has also provided the grounds for the soft hedging strategy implicit in Asian and Australasian re-engagement in projects for a putative US led Asia-Pacific Free Trade Area. Such a strategy provides a political and economic space for European reengagement in Southeast Asia: better to swim between three reefs than merely two.