Experts in China see big role for US in region: Survey

71% feel Washington will exert greatest power, compared to 68% in America

DESPITE the strains in Sino-US ties and remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping warning the United States to leave Asia to Asians, Chinese international relations experts still see Americans playing an important leadership role in the region over the next decade.

In a recent survey of more than 400 diplomacy experts in 10 economies by American think- tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), analysts in China generally believed the US would continue to play an important role in the region, voicing a greater belief in the US than their American counterparts on one score.

Some 71 per cent of those polled in China believed that the US would be the country exerting the greatest power in East Asia in a decade, compared with just 68 per cent of those surveyed in the US.

The rest of the countries polled were split on the question.

American allies South Korea and Japan favoured the US, while opinions were even in Australia at 50-50. Singapore and Taiwan favoured China slightly, while Indonesia, India and Thailand sided heavily with the Asian giant.

A large majority of those in China also expected the US to be their country's most important economic partner in 10 years, while less than 5 per cent thought there would be Chinese primacy.

The responses were all logged before Mr Xi's "Asia for Asians" comments last month, but experts involved in the study did not think the position has changed since then.

Mr Christopher Johnson, a senior adviser and China expert at the think-tank, sees a return of Chinese attitudes to where they were just before the global financial crisis struck in 2008.

"I think after the global financial crisis, there was a very strong perception in China that they had found some third way, and that their rise was inevitable and the US had stumbled or was already in permanent decline.

"I think those assessments have started to even out as the US has done better economically... and there are deepening concerns within the Chinese system about their own ability to maintain the robust economic growth they have been witnessing over the past several years."

He also suggested that Beijing is still trying to figure out what sort of role it wants to play in the world, and will let the US lead in the meantime.

"It gives the lie to the notion that all Chinese are just brimming with hubris and assertiveness and aggressiveness," he said.

As a whole, the report painted a picture of a region where experts were increasingly concerned about the threat posed by historical issues and territorial disputes, even as they see China playing an increasingly important economic role.

This narrative was particularly evident in the responses coming out of Singapore and Indonesia. Singaporean pundits overwhelmingly expected China to be their country's most important economic partner, while favouring continued US leadership.

Singapore, like most of the other countries, strongly supported the US rebalance to Asia, even if they questioned its implementation.

Mr Ernie Bower, the Sumitro chair for South-east Asia studies at CSIS, said: "There is a clear message for US strategy here. For South-east Asians, they cannot imagine a regional economic framework that doesn't include China, and they can't imagine a regional security framework that doesn't include the US.

"They want both of us included."

And that message, he told The Straits Times, had yet to be fully embraced by the US government. He said, for instance, that while the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement was an important instrument in the rebalance, Asian observers would see it as being insufficient as the talks exclude China.

"The TPP is not enough. When they talk about trade strategy, it needs to go beyond TPP."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

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