The Obama administration has stepped up engagement and dialogue with China to an unprecedented level. The two countries currently have more than 70 official high level dialogue mechanisms, including the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SAED).
At the same time, the US announced its ‘pivot’ to Asia in November 2011, and is strengthening its alliances in the region and stepping up diplomatic and economic engagement across the board.
The engagement and the ‘pivot’ are two sides of the same coin of foreign policy. The engagement conveys that the US seeks a cooperative co-existence with China, and the ‘pivot’ signals to China and US allies that it has vital interests in the Asia Pacific which it is determined to protect, irrespective of its budgetary constraints.
This dual-track strategy has been shaped by concerns that US–China relations were at risk of sliding into dangerous new tensions as a result of perceived Chinese assertiveness. China’s growing military power has also been a factor, especially its asymmetrical capabilities, which will make it difficult and costly for the US to protect some of its allies near the East Asian littoral through area defence.
Given the lack of mutual trust and the conflicting interests between the two sides, it would be unrealistic to expect the dialogue process to produce significant results soon. So far they seem to be exchanging their different perspectives on various issues and not much more, though the fourth round of the SAED in May 2012 seemed to produce more candid discussions than before. The good thing is that both sides seem eager to engage and discuss.
Neither side wants conflict — by design or accident. China is still relatively weak. Participation in the dialogue process would enable it to advance its status and influence as a co-equal of the US; to explore whether the US is prepared to make significant concessions in the Western Pacific; and to gain more time to build up its strength. The US, on its part, needs respite from its wars to fix its economy and prepare for future contingencies.
The question is whether, over the longer term, there will be only one ‘resident’ superpower in East Asia or two. The US position has always been that the region should remain open to all powers. China, on the other hand, may want an East Asia where it has dominant influence. After all, Admiral Timothy Keating, then US Pacific Commander, recalled in 2009 that a high-ranking Chinese naval officer had once suggested to him that the US and China divide the Pacific Ocean between them, with China responsible for keeping the peace west of Hawaii and the US east of Hawaii. The US would likely be against separate spheres of influence and would want the two countries to work together in the Pacific and elsewhere.
The US is deeply entrenched in East Asia militarily, politically and economically. To cede the entire region to China would be to reverse a century-old policy of not allowing another power to dominate East Asia. The US went to war with Japan to prevent that and then in Korea and Vietnam on the then assumption that a communist occupation of these two territories would facilitate China’s domination of East Asia. The economic and strategic stakes today are even larger.
At least for the medium term, China is unlikely to pressure the US to withdraw from its bases and alliances near the East Asian littoral, though in the longer-term it is likely to do so. Would it, as an intermediate step, seek a division of the East Asian littoral into spheres of influence, for instance with the South China Sea, continental Southeast Asia and Taiwan in the Chinese sphere and Japan, South Korea and maritime Southeast Asia in the US sphere? It is an intriguing question on which, in the absence of hard evidence, one can only speculate. But given the importance China seems to be according to the South China Sea, one cannot rule out the possibility.
Most Southeast Asian countries value relations with both China and the US. Hence more cooperative US–China relations would be welcome as it would reduce strategic tensions and enable the smaller countries to avoid having to choose between the two powers. However, a US–China duopoly or a classical European-style concert of powers, which may include major powers such as the US, China, Japan and India, will be resisted unless it is modified to suit East Asian realities by using, for example, an ASEAN-centred forum like the East Asia Summit to consult and inform.
As for the South China Sea, the US faces a delicate dilemma — avoiding conflict with China while maintaining the credibility of its commitments to allies, and ensuring that the balance of power in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia is preserved. There could also be a risk that the importance the US is according to its strategic engagement with China could encourage some in China to be more assertive in the South China Sea while inhibiting the US from making a firm response.
The combination of China’s increasing presence on shoals and rocks in the disputed territories, the installation of new military and administrative structures, and more paramilitary and naval presence may not seem grave enough for the US to respond in a way which spoils the engagement process with China, but such tactics could strengthen China’s de facto position in the South China Sea. Its forward movement in the South China Sea, which is located in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia near vital maritime choke points, may proceed in stages, with each stage a test of US reaction and resolve.
Daljit Singh is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, and the Coordinator of its Strategic and Political Studies Programme.
A longer version of this article was first published here by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.