Chinese actions in maritime Asia are raising questions about American willingness and ability to act decisively in the region. That ambiguity is bad news for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), traditionally dependent on the US security umbrella and more recently enjoying rapid expansion of trade with China.
Chinese perceptions of American weakness are fueling the aggressiveness with which Beijing is pushing its sovereignty agenda in the East and South China seas. China perceives a Washington divided by political partisanship, a questionable economic recovery and budgetary restraints on military spending. Beijing is also aware of the historical trend that presages a US shift away from interventions abroad after engaging in major wars, in this case Afghanistan and Iraq.
While President Barack Obama tries to convince Asian allies and partners that he is following through on his "rebalance", or "pivot," to their region, China is working hard to counter that narrative. In this milieu, dangerous miscalculations with serious geostrategic consequences are possible.
In response, Asian countries are either hedging against the possibility that the United States might not be able to underwrite their security, or are adopting a pro-active stance against Beijing.
An example of hedging is the public denial by the head of the Malaysian armed forces that he had been surprised by China sending warships into Malaysian waters in January. He said, incorrectly, that Malaysia, the United States and others had been notified before the Chinese ships "strayed into Malaysian waters", where sailors took an oath to safeguard Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea.
Responses of this kind - intended to avoid escalating tensions with a rising China over the South China Sea disputes - could encourage more aggressive behaviour by Beijing in the future. Such responses are based on perceptions rather than realities, but America should still give its allies and security partners no reason to depend on such pacification-by-hedging.
A strong but nuanced US stance will encourage important Asian powers like Indonesia, which is not a claimant in the South China Sea territorial disputes. An Indonesian official declared recently that China claims part of Indonesia's waters off the Natuna Islands. Beijing includes part of the Natuna Sea within the "nine-dash line" map depicting its extensive claims in the South China Sea.
As a preemptive measure against instability, Jakarta has decided to deploy additional forces around the Natuna Islands. While the measured Indonesian move signals to China that its claims will not go uncontested, any military escalation could be dangerous without a guarantee of broader international intervention, which would be necessary in a face-off between two powers of such disparate strength as China and Indonesia. Such intervention would have to be an essentially American-led initiative.
But it is precisely this confidence in a decisive America that is being tested.
Asia wants to be convinced that the United States has the will and capacity to sustain its role as the ultimate security arbiter in the Indo-Pacific. Savvy Asian policymakers are looking for a US leader who will build a political foundation for proactive engagement in Asia throughout the 21st century. Sophisticated Asian friends understand that long-term security engagement must be accompanied by enhanced trade and investment links. American priorities must be animated by its national interests.
By contrast, Beijing is developing a narrative of America as a declining power whose weak economic recovery has been compounded by political gridlock serious enough to make President Obama cancel his Asia visit last November. In addition, the White House's failure to aggressively petition Congress for trade promotion authority, which is crucial for completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, even though economic engagement in Asia is crucial to America's long-term interests, erodes confidence in Washington's ability to remain the key offshore balancer in the region.
Worries about an America in decline are of great concern to the 10 members of Asean, whose prosperity and stability are a direct result of US engagement.
These are just perceptions, but perceptions are real to those who hold them. The truth is that China's military advances do not even begin to challenge American primacy. US investment in Asean, which far outstrips that of China, is the foundation for development, and the American market remains the final destination for many exports even in an economically ascendant Asia.
But perceptions can have serious consequences, not least in encouraging missteps and miscalculations. In particular, America's pivot to Asia would prove to be more dangerous than reassuring if it turned out to be a promise without serious intent. Asian countries depending on determined US focus would be led into making erroneous policy choices that would antagonise China, and then would find no sustained American policy of engagement to fall back on.
Asia's strategic uncertainties give the United States an opportunity to match actions with words and show the region that it is here to stay. This will be the challenge President Obama faces as he visits Asia in late April. If that reassurance is successful, China will come to understand the reality of US commitment and change its behaviour towards South-east Asian countries accordingly.
Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and holds the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @BowerCSIS.
Derwin Pereira heads a Singapore-based political consulting company and also is a member of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.
This article first appeared on CogitASIA (http://cogitasia.com/), the blog for the Asia programmes at Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).