Where is the center of gravity in the Asia-Pacific region, and where will it be five, 10 or 15 years from now? Variations on these questions were likely never far from the minds of the 21 heads of state who gathered in Beijing on Nov. 10 for the first two days of this year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation annual summit. The months leading up to the APEC summit offered these leaders no shortage of competing views of the Asia-Pacific, particularly as to who will or ought to lead it. The conference is unlikely to offer anything resembling conclusive answers to these questions. It does, however, provide an opportunity to consider the overlapping concepts of the Asia-Pacific region, namely the ongoing negotiations over various regionwide free-trade agreements, as well as the geopolitical realities underpinning and constraining them.
The Chinese Pole
Taken together, the agreements under discussion in and around APEC present a picture of the modern Asia-Pacific region as orbiting two magnetic poles, each one attempting to pull in the rest of Asia. At one end is China, which has cast its growing regional economic, diplomatic and military clout in broad historical strokes as nothing more (or less) than a nascent return to East Asia's historical status quo. In this picture, mutual recognition of China's centrality will not constrain regional growth or upset regional peace. Instead, Beijing says its leadership will ensure both — much as it did throughout most of Asia's history.
This vision should not be understood solely as a push to realize China's longstanding strategic imperatives — though it surely is that — but also in the context of China's evolving needs and constraints. Chinese President Xi Jinping's rejuvenated focus on the idea of building a network of maritime and land "Silk Roads" stretching from Indonesia to Central Asia is a case in point. China seeks to frame an East Asia that extends beyond the Pacific Ocean basin, encompassing an integrated economic sphere stretching from Central Asia to the South and East China seas, with China ever at its center.
Beijing's view is not just historical or symbolic, but driven by the reality of China's geopolitical position now and in the future. China's economic and political stability is increasingly dependent on the country's ability to import and export through seas controlled primarily by the United States. Naturally, China's regional vision — and the myriad trade and investment deals Beijing hopes will cement that vision — reflects Beijing's need to limit its seaborne vulnerabilities by expanding land-based trade and energy ties throughout Eurasia. To realize its long-term goals of regional economic and political leadership, China must ensure its basic security by building in supply chain redundancies — in this case, redundancies that offer the added benefit of expeditiously linking Chinese inland producers with overland trade partners.
The U.S. Pole
At the other end of the spectrum is the United States, seen these days as something of a sleeping giant when it comes to Asia. During his first day at the APEC summit, U.S. President Barack Obama made a strong show of support for the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade initiative that excludes China. Obama led a meeting of leaders from prospective TPP member states, urging progress through negotiations. Whatever the near-term prospects for enacting the trade deal, and despite the reality that the U.S. gaze will continue to be drawn toward other regions in the coming years, the United States is in many ways more secure in its position and interests in the Asia-Pacific than China is. After all, the United States controls the waters. And in many ways, its strategic interest — to maintain the regional balance of power and status quo — is far less ambitious and fraught, and ultimately far more appealing to China's neighbors, than Beijing's.
These fundamental quandaries are shaping the APEC summit amid discussions over free-trade deals, such as the China-exclusive TPP, the China-inclusive Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and China's maritime and land Silk Road economic zones. The binary question still remains: Will Asian countries ultimately subscribe to a regional framework centered on collective recognition of Chinese economic and political leadership? Or will they resist this framework in favor of one grounded in the United States' historical role as the arbiter of modern Asia and its balancer of power? Of course, reality is not so clear-cut. For the foreseeable future, Asia's many and diverse players — from the rising economies of Southeast Asia, to Australia, Taiwan and South Korea — will continue to flirt with and balance between these poles, allowing the visions of both Washington and Beijing to restlessly coexist through a number of trade and defense deals while dispelling the need for rigid alliances either way.