Wednesday, 30 April 2014

China and US in the "Asian Century" - Whither China? Whither US?

I've been reading this article from the Centre for Independent Studies on "Why America will lead the 'Asian Century' by John Lee."

Lee writes that "The beginning of the end of America's strategic primacy in Asia is commonly asserted, but poorly argued."

First he dismisses the notion that the US is a hegemon.
"One misconception... is... that America is a genuine hegemon... [dependent on] a preponderance of hard power resources... it has never been a genuine regional hegemon. Instead, America relies on the approval and cooperation of other states in Asia to remain dominant."
"America is not a Hobbesian Leviathan with absolute authority and power to do whatever it wants. It is not even, and has never been a true hegemon. Instead, the hierarchy is consensual." 
In other words, the US "dominance" is based on cooperation and acceptance by the regional governments. And that is something China doesn't quite get.
"... the US Navy depends heavily on bases in other sovereign states in Asia... subject to the domestic governments of the host country - ... vulnerable to the whims of domestic politics of the host country."
"Thus, there is broad-based regional approval of [various security arrangement/alliance with Japan, Korea, Philippines, Singapore, & Thailand]... these bilateral security relationships are perceived to be in the region's interests rather than as instruments to foster division, strategic competition, and tension. These security arrangements enjoy widespread support and legitimacy as stabilising arrangements in the region."
"The increase in relative US military power was warily watched by Beijing. But of great concern to the Chinese was that Asian states did seem at all perturbed by the increase in US military might; they appeared perfectly comfortable with this development... almost all Asian states fear that there will be less US military presence in the region, not more... This leads to a profound strategic frustration for... China." 
China's rise though, presents a question as to China's role, and the role of the US in the regional hierarchy of powers. However China is unlikely to slip into this hierarchy.
".. even though China has few options and has done an excellent job at positioning itself as a ‘legitimate’ rising power within this system, it has never felt comfortable slipping into a hierarchy and order that it had no place defining, building or enforcing."
"In Chinese eyes, the Middle Kingdom was the centre of Asia for all but 200 of the last 3,000 years, whereas America is a relatively recent imposter..."
China's (Dangerous?) Perspective

Lee points out that China is the only major power that is dissatisfied with the the current borders. And notes that "Rising, ambitious powers that are unhappy with existing land and maritime borders are dangerous."
Indeed, China’s ‘historical waters’ claim is periodically and categorically affirmed by its own laws, statements and policies. Beijing recently reaffirmed these claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in March 2009. This includes specific claims over the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which are disputed by countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and over the Daiyoutai Islands which are disputed by Japan.
China's view of the region is coloured by their selective view of history:
"... of more than 100 articles by China’s leading strategists published in the last decade... more  than three-quarters were about binding, circumventing, subverting, or superseding American power and influence...
Moreover, the modern Chinese narrative [takes] a selective view of history that feeds its own resentment... that it is still not ascendant in Asia. According to the modern Chinese interpretation of... history, while America was rising from the early 1800s onwards, China suffered a series of ‘humiliations’ at the hands of Western and Japanese powers. This began with the two Opium Wars (1839–1842 and 1856–1860), which ended in humiliating defeat for the Chinese and its government agreeing to the sale of British opium in the country. China was also forced to sign the treaties of Nanjing (1842) and Tianjin (1858), known from the 1920s onwards as among a series of Unequal Treaties. Other humiliations included the failure of the peasant-led Boxer Movement, considered by some to be reactionary if not xenophobic (which was put down by a coalition of forces from eight foreign countries in 1901), and the eventual downfall of the 270-year-old Qing Dynasty in 1912. The invasion by the Japanese in 1937 led to the Nanjing Massacre, in which up to 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered. In more recent times, the fact that Taiwan—the renegade province to which the defeated forces of the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek fled in 1949 following its defeat in the Chinese Civil War—remains autonomous only because of US protection continues to grate on Beijing. Importantly, a large part of this narrative is the belief that outside powers have long stood ready to divide China in order to weaken it."
China views America as being militarily strong and eager to use their military might - "warlike", and with a violent disposition.

While the US has inserted its military presence with the acquiescence of the regional governments, China's has the advantage, or excuse that they ARE in the region and so their military growth does not depend on the concurrence or agreement of other governments or states. And this means that China does not need to, nor intends to compromise its military growth and development, even as it attempts to address its dissatisfaction with the current world order and the borders.

China had grown its naval power beyond winning a war against Taiwan, moved ships from the North Sea fleet to the South Sea Fleet (operating in the South China Sea).

It also has territorial disputes with India and claims part of India's easternmost state

The growth of China presents a dilemma for regional governments:
"... allowing Chinese ambitions to go unchecked is not an option for other Asian states, neither is the option of ‘keeping China down’ a viable one."
Talk of the "Asian Century" fans the excitement and expectations of Asian nations, and of course China. And it would mean that any move  by a Western power (for example, the US) to obstruct China's rise, will be seen as self-serving, and illegitimate... unless China had done something provocative.

The ASEAN and neighbouring states want something very "Chinese" - Harmony and Balance, as prescribed by Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching.

Surprisingly (or not considering the Cultural Revolution), China has forgotten the lessons of the Tao Te Ching:
"Thus it is that a great state, by conceding to small states, gains them for itself, and that small states, by subsuming themselves to a great state, win it over to them. In the one case, humility (concession) leads to gaining adherents, in the other case to procuring favour. "
- Tao Te Ching, Chapter 61
[I have replaced "Condescending" with "conceding", and "debasing" with "subsuming" and "humility", but as these words were translated from Chinese, I felt that my replacement made more sense. Or perhaps maybe "Respect" might work better for all the words.]

In any case, China has been too insecure to make concessions to or even respecting her neighbours, whereas US has been mostly if not always respectful (of the rule of law), acting on principles, and conceding to the primacy of principles. This has gained them the respect of the regional governments, even as China's insecurity has driven the regional governments to seek US as a balance to China's rise.

See the first point in this article.

Engaging China

How should China's rise be accommodated?

How do we solve a problem like China?

Lee considers the G2 Approach - US and China engage.

Can the US engage China as equal stakeholders on the regional and global stage to discuss financial, economy and global matters as an extension of the US's Strategic Economic Dialogues?

It seems logical, and natural.

BUT, Lee suggests that this approach overestimates China's intentions and capability, and will show up the difference between Washington and Beijing's "interests, values, and capabilities."

Simply put, the US may be seeking an equal (China) to replace them in Asia - a benign, impartial, principled power who can maintain the "liberal order" and stability in the region.

Unfortunately, China has shown no signs that they intend to be a stabilising influence in the region. In fact, China may see the current "liberal order" as a means of supporting and perpetuating US hegemony. In which case it is in their interest to disrupt this order.

Or that is what they think they must do for China's unobstructed ascendance.

However, even if China and US interests are aligned, that China realises that stability in the region is also in her interest, China is not at the same stage of development and capability as the US.

While China's GDP is more than half that of the US, its per capita GDP is only 1/8 of the US. This means that China's priority would be raising their own people out of poverty. It has done a fantastic job over the last few decades, but there are still millions of Chinese still poor. These pressing domestic issues will prevent China from playing a leadership role in the region.

The G2 approach is therefore not going to work. China is not the US equal in capability nor in philosophy.

Moreover, Lee argues, the G2 approach would also undermine the US position with the other allies in the region. By giving China's special concessions or status before China has committed to the common goals of regional government and the US, the US risks creating a spoiled child.

The other regional governments including institutions such as ASEAN can engage and "socialise" China into the world order. The G2 appraoch of the US dealing bilaterally with China,
"...would be playing straight into Beijing’s hands—allowing China a privileged strategic voice and leverage in the region without spending resources in providing public goods for the region or displaying an adequate track record of restraint or responsibility."
China can rise within this regional structure and hierarchy, but it would have to work within the constraints of regional norms and processes - it would have to accept the "socialisation" process to make it a responsible member in the hierarchy.

The question is whether it would.

[Note: the ideas in this post is mostly that of John Lee of the Centre for Independent Studies. This summary has been an exercise for me to understand the 14 page paper. If there has been any error in the summary, the failure to understand is mine. If this helps you to understand the issue, please read the original for the fuller picture.

Why is this in Singapore 2B?

China will feature in Singapore's future as it already has. As China rises, the world order will change. The scenario we often hear is of China displacing the US. Maybe not in the near future, but maybe in 10 - 20 years time. 

What is worrying is of a new world order under China might be... disruptive.

The scenario painted suggests that there is a way for a smooth transition for the heir apparent, and if so, it would not be too disruptive. But for that to happen, it requires China to buy into the regional hierarchy, and to commit to regional norms, the accepted way of doing things. 

At this point, China is like the bull in china shop. It is big. It is unstoppable. And it's going to break a lot of things. ]

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