World wants 'China's money, US leadership'

China's General Fang Fenghui (seated), chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, being shown around the USS Coronado by Commander Shawn Johnston, in California last month. More than half of thought leaders polled in 11 Pacific Rim e
China's General Fang Fenghui (seated), chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, being shown around the USS Coronado by Commander Shawn Johnston, in California last month. More than half of thought leaders polled in 11 Pacific Rim economies think the region will still be defined by US leadership in 10 years, a point that remains true of specialists even within China, although some don't necessarily see this as a good thing.PHOTO: REUTERS

PREDICTING the US' demise in Asia has long been a cottage industry in many countries, including those in South- east Asia.

But what do the majority of international relations experts across the Asia-Pacific really think?

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, put that question to over 400 thought leaders between March 24 and April 22.

The respondents came from 11 countries and economies around the Pacific Rim: Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Myanmar, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore and the United States.

More than half of the elites surveyed (57 per cent) think the region will still be defined by US leadership in 10 years, a point that remains true of specialists even within China, although some don't necessarily see this as a good thing.

Just over half of the respondents believed China will be the greatest power in East Asia in 10 years, while 43 per cent believed the US would continue in this role.

Similarly, 56 per cent of respondents across all 11 economies expect China to be their country's most important economic partner in 10 years, followed by the US at 28 per cent.

Respondents on average were generally happy about China's economic impact on the region. But 61 per cent felt that China was having a negative influence on regional security.

This concern may explain another key finding: 79 per cent of respondents expressed support for the Obama administration's strategic rebalance towards Asia. Not surprisingly, only 18 per cent felt that the US rebalance was too confrontational towards China.

The White House will be pleased with the overall support in the region for the US rebalance, but it should take note of the fact that an average of 51 per cent of respondents also say the policy is being poorly implemented.

Such concern was particularly strong in the case of places geographically closest to China. Seventy-one per cent of Japanese respondents were concerned about how the US was implementing the policy, as did 64 per cent of South Koreans, 67 per cent of Indians and 59 per cent of Taiwanese.

With the exception of Singapore, South-east Asian thinkers were far less worried.

While 68 per cent of thought leaders in Singapore expressed concern over the implementation of the rebalance, the proportion dropped to 35 per cent in Indonesia and just 21 per cent in Thailand.

To placate its critics in North- east Asia, the Obama administration may need to push harder to get congressional support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and additional defence spending if it wants to correct this negative impression of policy implementation among many Asian opinion leaders.

Given their misgivings about the implementation of the US strategic rebalance, it is probably not surprising that concern in South- east Asia about China is highest in Singapore, where 57 per cent think Beijing's actions are having a negative impact on regional security. This compares with 44 per cent of Indonesian respondents and 39 per cent of Thais.

Thailand, however, presented some surprises. Despite the country's long diplomatic relationship with the US, only 7 per cent felt continued American leadership would be in Thailand's best interests. The majority of Thais thought a community of nations based on strengthened multinational institutions would be in their country's best interests.

Thailand also had the fewest analysts who believed the US would exert the greatest power in East Asia in 10 years (7 per cent).

Confidence in continued US leadership in the region despite a possible decline in Washington's relative military power is strongest in South Korea (83 per cent), followed by Singapore and Japan (both 79 cent).

But while Singaporean thinkers were among the most worried about the effective implementation of the US rebalance towards Asia, they were also among the most forthright in acknowledging China's economic significance. Three-quarters of Singapore respondents believed China will be the country's most important economic partner in a decade.

When asked about the importance of various economic frameworks to their country's economic future, respondents on average rank the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation highest, with 82 per cent considering it either very or somewhat important.

This was followed closely by the Asean Economic Community (81 per cent), the TPP (75 per cent) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (72 per cent).

Queried about the possibility of a new community of nations developing based on strengthened multilateral institutions and international cooperation, there were few takers.

But a significant minority (39 per cent) of Indonesian thought leaders - more than three times the average - considered this a distinct possibility. Indonesia is a significant player in South-east Asia, and can therefore expect to acquire an enhanced international role should neither the US nor China dominate.

Most respondents were modestly optimistic about building an East Asia Community. But they also saw major obstacles. Territorial disputes concerned experts most, with nine out of 10 Indonesians, and six out of 10 Thais replying that they would support military options to reverse a hostile takeover of their territory should diplomacy fail.

Thought leaders in China, however, see things very differently. When asked to evaluate the impact of the US rebalance towards Asia, 74 per cent of China-based respondents said they believed it was too confrontational towards Beijing. By comparison, just 18 per cent of analysts in the region as a whole agreed.

Beijing should pay close attention to the broad support in Asia for the US rebalance, and tendency of thinkers outside China to reject the assertion that the move is confrontational. While Asia's thought leaders welcome China's economic growth, they also clearly want continued US leadership.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

Michael Green is senior vice-president for Asia and Japan chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro chair for South-east Asian Studies at CSIS.