How not to think about geopolitics in East Asia

Thinking in binary terms is dangerous at a time of geopolitical flux. Don't be forced into making false choices between a rising power and the incumbent.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking after he reviewed a military display of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy in the South China Sea earlier this year. Beijing's main diplomatic tactic is to pose false choices and force choices between them
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking after he reviewed a military display of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy in the South China Sea earlier this year. Beijing's main diplomatic tactic is to pose false choices and force choices between them, says the writer. PHOTO: REUTERS

Too much analysis of geopolitics in East Asia, whether in the media, academia or by governments, is pervaded by the binary fallacy.

This is a mode of thought in which something must necessarily be one thing or another.

United States-China relations are the major axis of the East Asian geopolitical equation. There is a tendency to think that anything adversely affecting the US must necessarily rebound to China's advantage. A particularly egregious example was a Foreign Policy article the day after the 2016 US presidential election with the absurd headline "China just won the US election". More than a year later, too much of that attitude still persists.

A more symmetrical US-China relationship is certainly emerging. But binary thinking is misleading and can be dangerous.

China's rise is not America's decline except relatively. Both are and will remain substantial powers. Neither's future is going to be described by a straight-line trajectory up or down. They distrust each other, but are interdependent. Their competition is not a zero-sum game.

This ought to be obvious. However, the shock of Mr Donald Trump's election, and Mr Xi Jinping's consolidation of power at the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) 19th Party Congress, clouds dispassionate analysis.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking after he reviewed a military display of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy in the South China Sea earlier this year. Beijing's main diplomatic tactic is to pose false choices and force choices between them, says the writer. PHOTO: REUTERS

Under Mr Trump, there have been serious disruptions to American trade policy. His unpredictability has created new uncertainties. China's rise and ambition are real. But the idea that under Mr Trump, China's rise is America's decline is simplistic.


Mr Trump's America is often accused of retreating from leadership and undermining the so-called "liberal international order", giving China an advantage. This does not stand up to examination.

The Chinese system better pursues long-term goals than the American system that is subject to disruptions every four years. But the Chinese system has also been subjected to major disruptions and is not now somehow immune to future disruptions.

Mr Xi's consolidation of power, the move away from the principle of collective leadership, his insistence on party discipline, and the discarding of the two-term limit, has been compared to Mao Zedong. The comparison is false. But the potential for something akin to a neo-Maoist single point of failure may have now been reintroduced into the Chinese system.

Mr Trump's National Security Strategy published in December last year and the National Defence Strategy published in January this year, are largely mainstream documents that made clear that the US has not eschewed leadership or entirely disavowed the current global order. However, Mr Trump has a narrower and less generous concept of leadership that puts "America First", a more robust approach to competitors, and a return to an old strategy of "peace through strength".

One may have reservations about this concept of leadership and strategy. But it cannot be accurately described as a "retreat". It is a mistake to place too much responsibility on the Trump administration.

Nothing was as disruptive of the post-Cold War international order as then US President George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq. This was the denouement of the hubris that infected American foreign policy in the immediate post-Cold War under President Bill Clinton. The ensuing wars in the Middle East exhausted Americans, discredited the American political establishment, and set the stage for Mr Trump's election and that of Mr Barack Obama before him. The pressures on the "liberal international order" have deeper roots than Mr Trump's administration.

In foreign and security policy, continuity has been more evident than disruption. Mr Trump has reaffirmed the alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia. He has given the 7th Fleet greater latitude to conduct Fonops (Freedom of Navigation Operations) in the South China Sea to challenge China's claims. There is no sign that the US is withdrawing from East Asia. The 1969 Guam Doctrine was a far more serious reorientation of US security policy in East Asia than anything Mr Trump had said or done.

The cancellation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a blow to American credibility. But no less serious was former US president Mr Obama's failure to enforce the red line he drew in Syria. Mr Trump's decision to bomb Syria while at dinner with China's Mr Xi did much to restore the credibility of American power.

Competition always co-exists with cooperation. Mr Trump's strategy can be criticised for placing too much emphasis on competition. But this is a correction to the second Obama administration's naive belief that to secure China's cooperation on issues such as climate change, it was necessary to de-emphasise competition.


There are three main competing visions of East Asian order.

The US wants to preserve its "hub and spokes" system in which America is central, but within the Westphalian norm of formal sovereign equality. This is a norm always more honoured in its breach than its observance. Sovereign equality nevertheless maximises the scope for smaller states to exercise agency, provided no vital US interest is at stake. A "free and open Indo-Pacific" - a term much touted recently - is short-hand for this American goal.

China wants its new status acknowledged. This is a legitimate aspiration. But China holds the concept of sovereign equality lightly, if at all, and wants its status acknowledged not merely as a geopolitical fact, but as a new Sinocentric or hierarchical norm of East Asian international relations with China at the apex. China now promotes the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as an overarching vision in which all roads lead to Beijing.

"Asean centrality" encapsulates a third idea of regional order. Asean has made all the major powers dialogue partners and invited all of them to participate in Asean forums such as the Asean Regional Forum, East Asia Summit and Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus. Asean can thus be occasionally useful, that is to say "central", to the major powers - while not so strong as to be able to stymie their most important interests.

All the major powers have professed support for "Asean centrality". But in 2016, a Chinese vice-minister bluntly told the Asean foreign ministers that as far as the South China Sea was concerned, Asean was not central. The vice-minister was rude, but not wrong. Nor was he expressing a position unique to China. For many years, Asean was certainly not "central" to the American approach towards military-ruled Myanmar, although the US was usually more polite about it.

"Asean centrality" nevertheless preserves some autonomy in the midst of great power competition by promoting an omni-directional South-east Asian balance of major powers. This gives Asean some degree of voice and agency. The degree of "centrality" varies from issue to issue and ebbs and flows over time. This is not ideal, but the ideal is found only in heaven.

None of these ideas will prevail in entirety.

The South China Sea is a proxy for competition between different ideas of regional order. Strategically, the South China Sea issue is at a stalemate. China will never drop its claim to almost the entire South China Sea. Nobody can make China dig up the artificial islands it has constructed on disputed areas and throw the sand back into the sea. Beijing will certainly deploy military assets on those islands. But crucially, China cannot stop the US and its allies operating in, through and over the South China Sea without risking war.

The US is still militarily dominant and will remain so for the foreseeable future. China cannot prevail in a war. In a war, those islands and the military assets on them are only targets. War will put the Chinese Communist Party rule at risk. The preservation of party rule is the most vital of all of China's core interests. Beijing will not gamble with it.

Militaries must plan for worst-case scenarios. But in day-to-day diplomacy, as long as the US is present as a hard-power, off-shore balancer, there is manoeuvre space for small countries. This is something less than "centrality", but no Asean claimant can be forced to give up its claims or need accept subordination.


Much of the commentary on Mr Xi's 19th Party Congress speech focused on China's global ambitions. There is nothing unusual about a big country having big ambitions. But the overwhelming focus of the speech was domestic.

Insufficient emphasis was given to Mr Xi's definition of the new "principal contradiction" facing China.

This is the contradiction between China's "unbalanced and inadequate development and the people's ever-growing needs for a better life" and consequently, on the urgent imperative of revitalising the CCP to meet those needs.

The new "principal contradiction" prescribes an extremely complex and lengthy domestic economic, social and political agenda on which, as the speech made clear, the continuation of party rule depends.

Furthermore, the speech referred only obliquely to a key issue left over from the 18th Party Congress in 2012: What is the appropriate balance between market efficiency and communist party control?

The 19th Party Congress offered no clarity, and indeed there are no clear answers. Mr Xi reaffirmed the commitment to economic efficiency, but his stronger insistence on party discipline and the CCP's leading role may have sharpened the challenge.

The challenge is fundamental - even existential - because there is no practical alternative to CCP rule. The BRI is as much about dealing with this central challenge as it is an ambitious global strategy.

The BRI is essentially the externalisation of a growth model heavily dependent on state-owned enterprises-led infrastructure investment. The 18th Party Congress had recognised that this model was unsustainable within China. But a new growth model requires structural changes that Beijing is unsure how to make without risking internal instability that could jeopardise party rule. By exporting the old model, the BRI buys time for Beijing to deal with this fundamental question.

It is however already evident that transplanting the Chinese model overseas can result in serious liabilities for both China and the recipient countries. The Chinese presence often evokes as much resentment as admiration or gratitude. China suffers from a persistent deficit of "soft power".

In South-east Asia, concern over the terms of agreements have led to delays in several projects. Anecdotes about the overbearing Chinese presence and its undesirable consequences are common. China's activities among overseas Chinese communities in South-east Asia leads Beijing into particularly sensitive territory. Overseas Chinese affairs have now been brought under the purview of a strengthened United Front Work Department.

None of this implies that China will fail. But the BRI in South-east Asia, as in other regions, is going to face competing demands on Chinese resources which are vast but not infinite, and is going to pose problems both for China and recipient countries.

Its implementation will therefore be patchy and will not unfold along a smooth trajectory: Some BRI projects will work better than others, some will succeed, some will stall.


Contiguity and strategic weight will always give China significant influence. But significant influence is not exclusive influence. Few countries are going to meekly accept a relationship with China that curtails the autonomy to pursue other interests and other relationships. The US, Japan, India, Australia and South Korea are not going to suddenly disappear from South-east Asia.

Vietnam is Vietnam because over two millennia, it has refused to become China. Indonesia prides itself on its "free and active" foreign policy. Except for the short World War II Japanese occupation, no major power has ever captured South-east Asia whole.

In North-east Asia, a core element of Japanese and Korean national identities is the refusal over many centuries to accept permanent incorporation into the Chinese regional order. India is as big a country as China and as ancient a civilisation. It has its own conception of regional order that it is never going to subsume in anyone else's ideas, be it China or America.

The main risks that have emerged under Mr Trump are in trade. His emphasis on "fair" not "free" trade and declared intention to retaliate robustly against what he perceives as unfair trade, carries serious risks for all countries in East Asia. But the main target is China.

China was the main beneficiary of the US-led open trading system. It could be the main loser if that order descends into further uncertainty.

China cannot replace US leadership. The US led by being open and generous. The universality of the American model, and the inseparability of its political and economic aspects, was a delusion. But American openness allowed adaptations of its economic aspects to develop and link themselves with the US, while retaining considerable political autonomy.

America under Mr Trump is now less generous. But despite its "win-win" rhetoric, the Chinese approach is far too transactional to replace American leadership. It provokes resistance as well as compliance.

Moreover, the "Chinese model" is built around the structure of a Leninist state - of which only five remain in the world - and is too deeply Chinese in its characteristics, to be widely replicable elsewhere.

China's rise and the BRI are built on the foundations of the current open order. Can an open order be maintained by a still largely closed model? It is precisely how and how much more China should open up that Beijing has yet to decide. The BRI is not a practical alternative to the current order. Can the BRI succeed if the US and China stumble into a trade war or the world turns protectionist?

China criticises the US alliance system as a Cold War relic. But in so far as that system is an inextricable component of the broader order, China's real attitude is more ambivalent. This makes one of the most prevalent perceived binary choices - between the US as security provider and China as a major economic partner - less stark or daunting.

China will certainly play an increasingly important role in global and regional institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the Asian Development Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It has created supplementary institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. It is far more credible to envisage China playing a bigger role within some modification of the existing order, than to see China replacing the current order with its own order.

East Asia is a complex and diverse region. Complexity and diversity make for a tendency towards multipolarity. The period when there appeared to be only one US-led regional order was in historical terms, brief and exceptional. We are now in transition to a more historically normal situation.

The future East Asian architecture is likely to eventually consist of multiple overlapping frameworks. This is messy. But East Asia is a messy region, and in messiness there is greater resilience than in any single framework. An architecture of multiple overlapping frameworks is in line with the omni-directional balance embedded in the concept of Asean centrality. However, to get there we will have to navigate more than usual major power competition, more than usual complexity, and more than usual uncertainty.

In these circumstances, the binary fallacy is dangerous.

Major power competition for influence is inherent in the structure of an international system of sovereign states. It is as pointless to complain about major powers attempting to acquire influence by any means available, as it is to complain about earthquakes or typhoons or other natural disasters. If we do not prepare ourselves for such eventualities, it is our fault.

To deal with it, we have to understand major power competition.

China better than any other major power understands that competition is as much - and perhaps more - psychological as material. Sun Tzu, the great Chinese strategist, wrote: "To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill."

China's main diplomatic tactic is to pose false choices and force choices between them. It seeks to instil a sense of fatalistic inevitability about the choices presented. The general narrative within which this tactic is deployed is of China's inevitable rise and America's inevitable decline and that East Asia should therefore get on the right side of history.

The binary mode of thought which oversimplifies complexity and is strongly deterministic, sets up an almost perfect framework for promoting false choices within this narrative. Some choices, once made, cannot be reversed.

  • Bilahari Kausikan is a former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2018, with the headline How not to think about geopolitics in East Asia. Subscribe