The need for nuance
In this American election year, Asia has moved centre-stage with rising hostile rhetoric between China and the United States.
The Indo-Pacific, as it is now becoming known, is both a region of high opportunity – accounting for 35per cent of the global economy – and one of potential conflict,with some 50 per cent of world-wide arms sales taking place there.
Alternating American administrations may change volume levels but since Barack Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ in 2011, underlying issues have become exposedand they will not melt away. In Washington, China is among the very few political concerns that wins bi-partisan support while, in Beijing, any opposition there might be to Xi Jinping’s hard driving expansionist nationalism has yet to be heard.
From this situation comes a battle between Western-style democracy and Chinese-style authoritarianism, each arguing theirs is the superior political system and each producing more and more sophisticated weaponry to prove it.
Only a few years ago, China’s image was one of a glittering, clever society that had masterminded poverty alleviation and was reaching out to become an investment engine of global infrastructure. But that image is now stained, and the relatively benign scenario of a rising power has become a threatening one of ideological rivalry and, as seen from both the American and Chinese systems, a contest between good and evil.
‘We have to keep in mind that the regime is a Marxist-Leninist regime,’US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said in a speech earlier this year. ‘America can no longer ignore the fundamental political and ideological differences between our countries.’
This trajectory, instigated by Beijing and Washington, revolves around the dynamics of power transition, one challenging, one holding on, of bolstering prestige and influence, securing market and military access and so on. The contest will not be contained within Asia and, as the situation polarises, the view from one side or the other becomes more difficult to explain because of accusations of appeasement.
One way through would be for mid-ranking countries to make their voices heard and become actively involved in defusing tension. Dozens of countries from Britain to Indonesia to Chile understand the need for reform and power rebalance, but prefer the shift to be so incremental as to be barely noticed.
Two areas need particular attention.
The first is to uphold the current rules-based international order. It might be flawed and crying out for reform; it might be unfair to those nations which have transformed themselves from impoverished war zones to modern forward-looking powerhouses. But it is what we have and, for the most part, it keeps us in line. To support this argument is not being pro-American, but simply pro-common sense.
Prison camps for Xinjiang’s Muslims, the Hong Kong crackdown, military threats against Taiwan and the building of bases along busy South China Sea trade routes have given us all a glimpse of what an unchecked Chinese-led world order might look like.
The second area is to ensure that what unfolds does not become a zero-sum defeat or humiliation for China. With a strengthening array of multi-national alliances lined up against Beijing, such a risk is increasing. Yet the Indo-Pacific contains several institutions that could help dilute Cold War-style polarisation.
The clumsily-named Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership is a new free trade organisation comprising eleven nations around the Pacific Rim, accounting for 13.5 percent of the global economy. The concept came about during the Obama administration but Donald Trump then pulled out, leaving Japan and Australia to set it up.
With neither China nor the US as members, the CPTPPis an example of mid-ranking powers forging their own institutions. They are also reaching beyond Asia. Post-Brexit Britain is keen to join.
In Southeast Asia, the Five Power Defence Arrangements were set up in 1971 to stop conflict around the Malay peninsula. Comprising Australia, Britain, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore, the FPDA lay dormant for many years, but has now been reactivated to challenge China’s maritime claims. Here, too, are mid-ranking regional powers showing resolve.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a once loose strategic alliance comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US, has become tighter and more closely aligned. But at a Tokyo meeting earlier this month, the difference between American and Asian values became clear.
For the US, Mike Pompeo argued that the Quad was designed to protect people from China’s ‘exploitation, corruption and coercion’. Japan’s chief government spokesman, Katsunobu Kato, countered by saying, ‘This Quad meeting is not being held with any particular country in mind’.
Here is a scenario of an influential but mid-ranking nation understanding the shades of grey needed in Indo-Pacific politics and tempering the excess instincts of a superpower. More of that is needed on both sides.
Within the line-up behind the rules-based order are former colonial powers such as Britain, France and Japan whose 21stcentury challenge echoes China’s 1839-1949 Century of Humiliation, which encompassed military conquest, occupation and civil war.
The Chinese Communist Party has pledged that such a defeat will never be allowed to happen again. Yet if Beijing does think it is playing a game of chicken with Washington, where one side has to publicly back down first, Beijing would surely lose.
A China that feels shamed could become a China that lashes out. Of all the scenarios being discussed, this would be the least palatable.
American political psychology, as seen in its news shows, Hollywood movies and elections, is one of winner and loser. That mindset must not be allowed to unfold in Asia. Again, to support this argument would not be pro-China, but an advocacy for realism and common sense.