Risks and rewards of ‘managed coexistence’
Language is important and, in today’s environment, it is global.
A phrase used between policymakers in Washington will reverberate in Delhi and Tokyo and flow on down to villages of Indonesia and the Philippines.
Language can be unifying or divisive. Words and phrases like cold war, containment, democracy, rules-based order and so on are interpreted in different ways by different governments.
President Biden’s administration will bring with it fresh acronyms and slogans designed to define American policy in the Indo-Pacific.
The one to watch in coming months is ‘managed coexistence’. It may appear straightforward but is viewed through different prisms from Tokyo, Delhi, Singapore and other Asian countries, depending on the level of confrontation or accommodation believed is needed with China.
Biden comes to office as the two opposing experiments in dealing with Beijing are seen to have failed, certainly in the short term. The first, under Barak Obama, was aimed at bringing about changes to China’s political system through engagement. Donald Trump reversed that thinking to attempt change through aggressive competition.
With both, China barely blinked. Hence the new, upcoming policy of managed coexistence.
It was first discussed in Foreign Affairs magazine in 2019 by Kurt M Campbell and Jake Sullivan, who are now leading America’s Asia policy as Indo-Pacific Coordinator and National Security Adviser, respectively.
In a long article, they laid out the premise of ‘managed coexistence’, arguing that it offered the best chance to ‘protect US interests and prevent inevitable tension from turning into outright confrontation. It does not mean the end of competition or surrender on issues of fundamental importance’.
They also used the phrase ‘clear-eyed’, indicating they had every intention of viewing the Chinese government for what it was without anticipating reforms to its Communist Party-led authoritarianism.
In another Foreign Affairs piece, just last month, Campbell advised that three measures should be put in place: a balance of power, an order that the region’s states recognise as legitimate, and an allied and partner coalition to address China’s challenge to both.
Drawing comparisons to 19thcentury Europe, Campbell pointed out that the situation in the Indo-Pacific was far more favourable. Back then, Europe needed to create order out of chaos. Now, the US only needed to modernise and strengthen elements of an existing system.
The concern echoing around the corridors of power in Delhi and Japan is that, after more than four years of advocating stronger Asian alliances, the US has now accepted the primacy of the Chinese Communist Party and may be contemplating cutting deals with Beijing at the expense of the region.
If that is the case, we may be heading towards what is described as a G2 world with two superpowers deciding the fate of smaller governments and the inevitable shifting of allegiances into opposing spheres.
‘Make no mistake: a US policy of “managed coexistence” with China will further strengthen the Chinese Communist Party internally and externally, ’wrote Indian geo-strategist Brahma Chellaney, in a column in the Japan Times.
Chellaney expanded his argument during an online seminar on the Indo-Pacific, hosted by The Democracy Forum last month, saying, ‘This approach will not only allow China to stay on the path of aggressive authoritarianism, but also set in motion America’s unstoppable decline.’
It is too early to tell the accuracy of this prediction; but the Indo-Pacific will almost certainly define Biden’s foreign policy success or failure.
Donald Trump has left a contradictory legacy. American ambivalence over the past four years has been met by proactive Chinese expansion and left the region feeling muddled. At the same time, however, it has given space for Australia, India, Japan and others to strengthen their relationships and work to form the beginnings of formal alliances in trade and security.
When Trump pulled out of the Obama-conceived Trans Pacific Partnership, for example, Japan and Australia led in creating an alternative trade grouping, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership, with 11 members in Asia and Latin America.
There need to be far more of these agreements within the Indo-Pacific, which are free from either Chinese or American involvements. Only then will the region get a sense of being more in control of its own future.
The as yet unresolved conundrum is that most governments want a rules-based mechanism to balance China’s expansion, but very few are prepared to do what it takes to create such an alliance as, for example, Europe has done with NATO and the European Union.
It may be many more decades before that is possible.
Asia’s success rests largely with its trade-led pragmatism. It doesn’t want to ‘decouple’ from China, and it would be costly, difficult and probably impossible to even try to exclude China from its future.
A year ago, Indo-Pacific language began to conjure up scenarios of a Cold War. Today, with the new language of ‘managed coexistence’, there is a chance that Asian governments can view China not as a problem that could become an enemy, but as a partner that needs to be managed.