Have the US and its allies in Asia reached a tipping point in their relations with China? The question posed by US China scholar, David Lampton, in a speech in Shanghai in March looks disturbingly prescient after a whirl of diplomatic and security offensives in recent weeks in the region.
The US and Japan substantially upgraded their defence alliance in a high profile summit meeting in Washington earlier this month. Japan, in turn, held its first naval exercises with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. This week, the US announced (and then later denied) it would station B-1 bombers in northern Australia, also with an eye on balancing China in the region.
Then, just in time for John Kerry’s weekend visit to Beijing, the Pentagon made it known it was contemplating limited military options in the form of naval patrols and surveillance flights in contested areas in the South China Sea to reinforce its opposition to Chinese actions.
At issue is China’s “island factory”, a series of intensifying reclamation works in the South China Sea to strengthen Beijing’s control over areas claimed by numerous Asia nations.
The possibility of a limited but risky challenge to Chinese actions by the US military hasn’t come out of the blue. Policy heavyweights in Washington policy and defence circles have been marshalling their arguments for the US to push back against what they regard as aggressive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea for months.
Robert Blackwill and Ashley Tellis, of the Council on Foreign Relations, bought the debate to the surface in a report in March, which calls for the US to build up its economic, diplomatic and military position in Asia. In short, less accommodation of China and more balancing.
“Because the American effort to ‘integrate’ China into the liberal international order has now generated new threats to US primacy in Asia — and could eventually result in a consequential challenge to American power globally,” the report argues, “Washington needs a new grand strategy toward China that centers on balancing the rise of Chinese power rather than continuing to assist its ascendancy.”
An alternative set of voices who had largely prevailed in China policy in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, and who advocated against the US adopting a more nakedly aggressive policy, are now on the back foot in Washington.
There are number of way to take issue with the Blackwill/Tellis strategy. By adopting what the Chinese will undoubtedly see as a policy of containment, the US will ensure that China continues to behave like a rival in Asia, and ensure it becomes one. The opportunities for any kind of partnership between the world’s two largest economies will thus wither, to the detriment of both capitals, and the rest of the world.
A 1999 photo shows a Chinese concrete fort in the Mischief Reef of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea © Getty Images
This is a familiar argument but one that is losing its force, as China has pushed ahead with reclamation works in the South China Sea despite repeated protests by the smaller regional nations, and public and private messaging by the US, to stop.
Mr Lampton’s argument for long-term harmony between the US and China in Asia – for Washington to rethink its postwar primacy in the region, and for China to recalibrate its own sense of strength – is sensible as far as it goes. But it doesn’t help in the short-term when China is creating new “facts on the water” with its island reclamation plan.
Until recently, Washington’s “re-balancing” or “pivot” to Asia under the Obama administration, has come in the form of baby steps. A few port visits here, and a few hundred marines there, but little that would grab the headlines and provoke a military stand-off with the US. That is now changing.
Most attention will now be on China’s response to any khaki-tinged US initiatives. Just as important will be watching the response of China’s Asian neighbours.
After a period in which Asian countries were ready to bid farewell to US primacy in Asia, China’s rise has seen many of them – notably Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore and Australia – hasten to invite the US back.
Will they be so keen if the US military does put on a display of power? China might remind their nervous neighbours to be careful what they wish for, should US enthusiasm for a more confrontational approach wane. The US might one day draw down in Asia but China isn’t going anywhere.
Richard McGregor, a former Beijing and Washington bureau chief for the Financial Times, is a public policy fellow at the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center