BY INVITATION

The Champion v The Challenger

ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

WHAT kind of Asia do we want to live in over the coming decades?

Distinguished Singaporean statesman Professor Tommy Koh spoke for many when he wrote recently in these pages of "a balance of power in the region in which the US, China, Japan, India and the European Union are the five poles".

Within that multipolar balance, he envisaged a relationship between the US and China in which they agree "to cooperate where their interests converge, to compete where their interests do not, and to manage their differences with maturity and wisdom".

Prof Koh's vision of Asia's future is indeed a most desirable one, and I very much agree that this is what we in the region should all want. The question is whether there is much reason to believe that we will get it.

Prof Koh made his remarks in response to views that I have presented in these pages which paint a rather gloomier picture of US-China relations.

I take this gloomier view because, rather than moving towards an agreement to manage their differences with maturity and wisdom, I think we face a real risk that the US and China are being drawn into an increasingly bitter strategic rivalry.

US-China rivalry

THAT rivalry is being driven by fundamental differences in the US and Chinese assumptions about their future roles in the region. America assumes that it can and should remain Asia's uncontested leader, while China assumes that it can and should replace the US in that position.

Their rivalry is escalating as the challenger pursues its aim with clear-eyed determination, while the champion muddles along unsure of how to respond. We can see this in developments in US-China relations over the past few weeks, as American policy responses have flip-flopped from soft to tough to soft again.

For months, despite his Asia "pivot" policy, and notwithstanding Chinese provocations, US President Barack Obama avoided committing America to supporting Japan militarily over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands. Then in Tokyo in late April, he pledged to support Japan in any armed clash with China over the disputed territories.

But in late May, just four weeks later, he gave a major speech at West Point on America's strategic posture in which Asia was mentioned only in passing. The "pivot" was not mentioned at all. And instead of emphasising America's willingness to use all elements of its power to maintain the existing global order, the President stressed his reluctance to use force unless America or its allies were directly threatened.

"When crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us - then the threshold for military action must be higher," he said. That sounds like a very different message from the one Mr Obama was sending in Tokyo. Indeed the entire speech reads like a repudiation of the whole "pivot" policy.

It is hard to imagine that it will not be read that way in Beijing - and welcomed as very good news. This is precisely what China's leaders have been hoping for as they wage their strong-arm campaigns over maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. It also explains why Chinese participants took such a hard line at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

Many people have been puzzled by Beijing's actions. It seems counterproductive for China to alienate its friends and neighbours with these bullying tactics. But the reason is perfectly simple, once one understands that China's overall aim is to expand its power and influence in Asia.

In Beijing, they know that the foundation of America's power and influence in Asia is its system of strategic alliances and partnerships. And they know that the ultimate strength of that system depends on the confidence of US allies and partners that America is willing and able to protect them from other great powers - especially China.

Undermining confidence

CHINA therefore calculates that the best way to erode US power in Asia is to undermine the confidence of America's allies and friends that the US will indeed help protect them. That is why China has so deliberately set out over recent years to put pressure - including military pressure - on America's friends.

China has been hoping and expecting that they will seek US support to resist China's pressure, and that America will let them down. That weakens America's regional alliances and partnerships, which in turn weakens its position in Asia - and strengthens China's.

Of course, there is a risk for Beijing in this tactic. It is assuming that America will indeed step back from supporting its allies rather than step up to confront China.

That is a big gamble, because Beijing does not want a confrontation with America any more than Washington does. If Washington chooses to step up to support its allies, China will be the one that has to back off and see its power diminished.

So Beijing is in effect betting that Mr Obama would rather disappoint its allies than confront China. So far the bet has paid off, and as challenges mount in the Middle East, China will be even more confident. Chinese leaders will pay little attention to the tough talk that figures like US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel offered at Shangri-La, dismissing it as empty posturing.

This means China will keep pushing harder, as it grows more and more determined to confront America with a stark choice between confronting it or stepping back from leadership in Asia.

As long as US-China relations remain locked into this kind of rivalry, the prospects for a mature, balanced relationship are small and shrinking.

Only a radical change in direction could get the two countries to move towards the very different future that Prof Koh describes. I have argued that the first step can best be made by Washington.

It could offer to transform the US-China relationship into one between equals, if China is willing to meet America half way. That is what I mean when I say that America will either have to share power with China or accept it as an adversary.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.


Prof Koh's vision of Asean's future

Excerpt of the article by Professor Tommy Koh for these pages on May 15, titled "In defence of Obama's foreign policy":

"PRESIDENT Barack Obama's Asia policy has been mistakenly described as a policy to contain the rise of China. If this is the intent of US policy, it is doomed to failure because China's rise cannot be contained.

In a column in The Straits Times on May 3, Australian academic Hugh White wrote: "If America is going to stay in Asia, it will either have to share power with China, or confront it as an adversary."

I disagree with Professor White for the following reasons. We do not live in a G-2 world. Other countries, such as Japan and India and, on the economic front, the European Union, are major players in the region. Russia should perhaps be added to the list. What we, in Asean, want is a balance of power in the region with the US, China, Japan, India and the EU as the five poles.

I would therefore reject the manner in which Prof White has framed Asean's future: as a choice between accepting a condominium ruled by the US and China; or a new Cold War between the US and China.

What seemed to have emerged from the summit between Mr Obama and China's President Xi Jinping, in Sunnylands, California, is an agreement for the two countries to cooperate where their interests converge, to compete where they do not, and to manage their differences with maturity and wisdom."