Fri, Sep 02, 2011 - Page 9 News List

China’s rise, the US and the Asian power squeeze

Aggression by Beijing in pursuing territorial claims, including on Taiwan, would be disastrous for peace in the Asia-Pacific region and for the prosperity on which China’s internal stability is premised

By Gareth Evans

Illustration: Mountain People

As China gets closer to overtaking the US as the world’s largest economic power and its disinclination to accept US military dominance of the Western Pacific grows more obvious, the US’ allies in the Asia-Pacific region and its friends are becoming increasingly anxious about their long-term strategic environment. The nightmare scenario for policymakers from Seoul to Canberra is a zero-sum game in which they are forced to choose between their great economic dependence on China and their still-enormous military reliance on the US.

No one believes that the US-China relationship will end in tears any time soon, not least because of the mutually dependent credit and consumption embrace in which the two countries are currently locked, but the outlook a decade or two from now is already generating a mass of analysis and commentary, focusing on the tensions that have long festered in the South China Sea, bubble up from time to time in the East China Sea and are forever lurking in the Taiwan Strait. What, if anything, can those regional countries with competing interests and loyalties do to avoid the pain that they would certainly face if US-China competition turned violent?

Probably no single one of us can do very much to influence the larger picture, but there are several messages — some accommodating, but others quite tough — that could very usefully be conveyed collectively by Japan, South Korea, the major ASEAN players and Australia to China and the US, spelling out how each could best contribute to keeping the region stable.

Giants are not always especially tolerant of lesser mortals, but in my experience the US tends to listen most and respond best to its friends when its policy assumptions are being challenged and tested, while China has always respected strength and clarity of purpose in its partners and interlocutors, and messages coming in convoy are harder to pick off than those offered in isolation.

The first set of messages to China should be reassuring. We accept that it has always been more serious than most about achieving a nuclear weapons-free world and we understand its need to ensure the survivability of its minimum nuclear deterrent so long as such weapons exist. We understand its interest in having a blue-water navy to protect its sea lanes against any contingency. We acknowledge that it has maritime sovereignty claims about which it feels strongly and we recognize the strength of national feeling about Taiwan’s place in a single China.

However, these messages need to be matched by others. As to its nuclear and other military capability, mutual confidence can be based only on much greater transparency — not only about doctrine, but numbers and deployment — than China has traditionally been willing to offer.

Any increase in China’s nuclear arsenal is destabilizing and utterly counterproductive to its stated goal of global nuclear disarmament. If other countries in the region are to diminish their reliance on the US nuclear deterrent — and not acquire any nuclear capability of their own — they must be confident in their ability to deal with any conceivable threat by conventional means.

In this context, China should expect no diminution in the commitment of the traditional US allies in the region to that relationship and to the US support that might be expected to continue to flow from it. While the defense planning of others in the region assumes no malign intent by China, such planning must be conducted — as evident in Australia’s recent defense white paper — with the capability of major regional players squarely in mind.

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