From their opposite ends of the Asia-Pacific region, China and the United States have distinct — though sometimes overlapping — strategic visions of East Asia. The respective hefts of the United States and China, and the interaction between the status quo power and the emerging power, naturally exert enormous influence on the region, though the countries between these two powers of course have roles to play in determining their fates.
Beijing has positioned itself since the global economic crisis as equal to the United States and Europe, at least in terms of economic weight. Hosting the recent G-20 Summit allowed China to highlight its growing regional and international stature. But Beijing still plays the dual role of economic power and developing nation. It considers itself the vanguard of the developing world, challenging the status quo established by the United States and Europe, something highlighted by Beijing's decision to invite numerous developing nations to have representatives present on the sidelines of the G-20.
Shortly after China hosted the G-20 summit, U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated his call for the implementation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Laos in a bid to assert a leadership role in the future structure of Asian trade relations. Though the Obama administration views the partnership as the cornerstone of U.S. trade relations in Asia, it faces strong political headwinds in the United States, where the deal's future is uncertain. Obama also had to cope with the appearance of strained relations with the new president of the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally situated at the point of collision between U.S. and Chinese strategic interests in Asia. These challenges highlight how Washington can no longer simply assert its right to lead in Asia, where the status quo is breaking down.
Though quite young by Chinese standards, the United States is the sole nation with true global power and a claimed global mandate, and in many ways it seeks to maintain this status quo. It is still trying to understand its role in a world without a clear opponent after almost 50 years of Cold War jockeying. Since oceans separate it from other global population centers, the United States long relied on maritime power to ensure its security. Early on in the development of U.S. foreign relations, Washington was drawn to Asia in a continuation of the longtime westward spread of its influence. Obama's much trumpeted pivot to Asia after a decade of conflict in the Middle East thus in a very real sense represented a reversion to form.
China — an ancient nation that for centuries served as the center of influence in Asia, relying on minimal military intervention by ground forces and a tributary system to shape its regional order — is in some ways the exact opposite of the United States. It is only just now re-emerging as a power of regional and, increasingly, global importance. Like the United States, China is seeking to understand its role in the world, though it is a product of a system it seeks to overturn. Beijing's developing policies and actions will be refined in East Asia, where China feels compelled to secure its interests as it expands its global reach.
The Asian Paradox
The only thing clear about relations in Asia today is the lack of clarity. In 2013, South Korean President Park Geun Hye referred to "Asia's paradox," which she described as "rising wealth, lingering tensions." By this she meant that growing economic interdependence among many East Asian states uniquely coexists with heightened geopolitical tensions and threats. Taken alongside the region's many cultural, historical and ethno-linguistic complexities, stability appears increasingly under threat.
For example, South Korea is a U.S. ally and hosts tens of thousands of U.S. forces, yet it has close economic ties with China and has challenged U.S. attempts to create a security triangle with it that includes Japan. North Korea has long been under China's sway, yet Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weapons demonstrates the limits of Beijing's ability to shape its behavior. The North's nuclear program harms Chinese strategic interests by prompting the United States to expand its missile defenses in the region and Japan to accelerate its military transformation. And ASEAN is simultaneously seeking unity through economic integration while facing the reality that different members have different interests and that unity can quickly be undermined by foreign influence.
Outsiders typically assume Asian countries want to balance close economic relations with China against close security relations with the United States. But reality is not nearly so clear-cut. Few countries in the region lean solely toward one of the two larger powers. And for their part, neither Washington nor Beijing uses one set of tools to influence regional behavior. Instead, the line between ally, partner, competitor and enemy is rather fuzzy.
The U.S. Challenge
The U.S. pivot was in part an assertion that the Obama administration would not do an about-face to isolationism after pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan. (Neither withdrawal happened either.) But it also represented a recognition of the dynamism of the Asia-Pacific region, one of the few areas with high growth and development, particularly compared with the mature U.S. and European economies. And it highlighted U.S. concerns that, should Washington not take a more activist role in Asia, China would emerge by default as the regional hegemon despite U.S. wishes.
A quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, a new global equilibrium has yet to emerge. Like the proverbial dog that caught the car bumper, the United States had little idea what to do after "winning" via the Soviet collapse. Washington's default setting was to continue to use the tools of military power, political ideology and economic heft to shape the emerging world order. But that approach, rather than bringing stability, brought many to view the United States as unpredictable, interventionist well beyond its apparent immediate national interests, and desperately in need of a counterbalance.
Nearly 15 years of military engagement in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria have now exhausted the United States. This does not mean U.S. military power has significantly eroded, but rather that its ability to maintain the tempo of operations with no apparent end in sight has begun to weigh heavily on the U.S. military, budget, society and politics. Historically, the United States has turned inward after major global interventions, questioning its global role and responsibilities. That same sort of reconsideration is underway today. No matter who wins the upcoming U.S. presidential election, the likely path forward for the United States is a shift toward demands for a greater active role for U.S. allies abroad and a reduced role for the United States as the world's "policeman."
But even as the United States reconsiders its ability and desire to play a strongly activist role internationally, the growth of other powers, notably China, is changing the overall balance of power and influence. The United States may not be weaker, but China is growing stronger, something that has caused Asian countries to question just how to balance economic cooperation with China against security cooperation with the United States. As Washington faces growing challenges to its regional security power from an evolving China, and as Beijing faces continued economic challenges from expanding U.S. investment and trade, this simplistic dichotomy breaks down even further.
China's Emerging Diplomatic Transition
Over the past several years, Beijing's diplomacy in the region can be broadly characterized by a trend toward tying regional economies into the Chinese economy to help achieve its strategic objectives. Yet Beijing must also address existing disagreements and problems in the region and respond to issues exacerbated by the Chinese economic and political expansion. This has created several apparent paradoxes proving increasingly complex for China to manage. First, it sees a need to advance its territorial claims in the region, but it also wants to maintain positive relations with its neighbors. Second, reliance on economic suasion rather than more diverse tools to shape regional behavior is becoming less effective as China's economy shifts into a new normal and as countries begin to see economic imperialism in China's actions.
And third, China's move away from following Deng Xiaoping's exhortation to avoid international entanglements until China was strong enough comes as Beijing appears to have no new ideology or values to share regionally.
Domestic, regional and international changes are all contributing to shape China's evolving foreign policy. What has grown clear in Beijing is that the policies espoused by Deng and generally followed by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao no longer suffice in an era where China's economic supply lines extend globally. China's strategic interests have moved well beyond its borders, and well beyond its immediate region. Old ideas of avoiding entangling alliances and sticking to a policy of overt noninterference are proving less effective, prompting Beijing to rethink those concepts.
Following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and the political transition from Mao Zedong to Deng, China dialed back its policy of actively assisting national revolutions and insurgencies. As China recovered and started its economic opening and reform path, it began to rely on newfound economic clout to give cash, unconditional loans, and other economic incentives to assert itself abroad. But money alone is no longer serving to ensure China's interests, which grow more complex by the year.
China is rethinking its decision to largely forgo political and security tools of international relations. Over the past few years, Beijing has steadily expanded the role of its security forces abroad, but primarily under the auspices of the United Nations, joint military training, disaster response and, increasingly, through arms sales. Within policy circles, there are discussions as to just how far to elevate the role of Chinese security forces to support its global interests. The restructuring and professionalization of the Chinese military, along with the process to establish bases or facilities overseas, will facilitate this changing role.
In line with the expectations of a slowly expanding role for China's armed forces abroad, there is also a reconsideration of the strict non-alliance policies. China is not seeking formal alliances, since these bring as many risks as they do rewards. But it is expanding its strategic and special partnerships with countries including Laos, Cambodia, Pakistan and Iran, and via more recent flirtations with European nations. At least for now, the strategy is less about creating a counter-bloc to U.S. alliances than about placing strains on the traditional U.S. alliance and partnership relations; China is as eagerly courting South Korea and France as it is countries such as Myanmar.
Perhaps the biggest change that may be emerging from Beijing is the recognition that its overt noninterference policy may be outdated. China's noninterference policies were never held strictly, but Beijing often ensured its interests by maintaining relations with (and support for) the whole political spectrum, even when some of those parties were opposed to one another. In this way, China tried to position itself as the disinterested third party, one that wanted to do business no matter the outcome of local competition. But despite Beijing's ongoing noninterference rhetoric, a nuanced shift is underway.
Beijing recently agreed to directly engage with several border groups in Myanmar to mediate the peace process, and it brokered a dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Its clearly failed attempt to balance both sides in South Sudan serves as a vivid example of the limitations of claiming it won't take sides. Perhaps the biggest challenge for China may lie in North Korea, where Pyongyang's actions are creating regional responses that are anathema to Beijing's strategic interests. The United States has all but called on China to intervene with the North Korean political elite to end its nuclear and missile program by reminding Beijing that the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system to South Korea is solely a response to North Korean actions. Even more than THAAD, the drive for expanded military capabilities and policies in South Korea and Japan in response to North Korea presents a growing security challenge to China.
Caught in the Middle
China is rethinking its tools of foreign policy even as the United States is reviewing its ability and desire to play the activist role. This creates an opening for China to emerge as the "responsible stakeholder" that Washington has encouraged. A China that quashes North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions, that provides a security presence in Afghanistan to help manage internecine fighting and terrorism as the Afghan government slowly takes shape, and that provides humanitarian aid and security guarantees for refugees along the periphery of the Syrian crisis is the kind of China the United States would like to see (at least on the surface).
But that is a China that fits neatly within a U.S.-centric system, a China that adheres to the ideology and morals that the United States claims to espouse. In reality, China does not have the same worldview as the United States. Beijing does not assume that democracy is the best system for governments to help avoid international conflict. Beijing does not agree with the need to push its own economic, political or social mores on other nations. And Beijing rejects the idea that the United States has any moral authority or claim to international leadership above China or other major powers.
This does not mean that China's rise is directed against the United States. Though China's economic policies are intended to break U.S. dominance of the global economic system, it does not necessarily want to see the dollar replaced with the yuan (which would bring tremendous responsibilities and challenges for Beijing). China's trade policies are about expanding its own options, markets and supplies, not necessarily about cutting U.S. access to these same producers and consumers. And China's expanding military role is as much about defending its own national interests as it is about countering the dominant power of the U.S. military.
Washington's attempt to slow changes to the global order, or at least shape them in its own image, at a time when the United States is feeling the limits of its ability to shape the world system will create challenges from regional countries worried about mixed signals regarding U.S. commitment. At the same time, China's growth and expanding role by their very nature challenge the status quo in the region and beyond, thus engendering responses from neighbors and the United States.
The more China seeks to secure its interests, the more it pushes up against what the United States sees as a response needed to stop the rise of any potential regional hegemon. The more the United States tries to increase its economic and defense relations in the region, and to push its political and social mores, the more China perceives a policy of U.S. containment. China is changing the status quo and the United States is seeking to enforce the status quo, and this leads inevitably to misunderstanding and contention. In a region filled with historic animosities, with increasing competition over resources and markets, with unresolved territorial disputes, rising populations and growing militaries, this can make for a rather volatile situation.