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No one nation, whether America or China, can rule Asia

12 Jun No one nation, whether America or China, can rule Asia

At their California summit, President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Barack Obama discussed a long list of disputes, from trade to climate change and cyberhacking. Both were anxious to get along and there will be only small steps forward. The key point to come out of the meeting is rapport.

The unresolved question of Asia-Pacific relations hovered in the background. Xi touched on this by saying that “the vast Pacific Ocean has enough space” for both countries. Underlying this was Chinese resentment about the US “pivot” to Asia.

Many in Beijing see it as a thinly disguised attempt to encircle China. Addressing the fundamental issue of accommodating a rising China must wait for another occasion.

Asian nations like the Philippines and Vietnam have welcomed the US rebalancing, given that China has grown more assertive recently about its claims over the South China Sea. Similarly, tensions over disputed islands further north have prompted Japan to embrace its alliance with the US.

It’s easy to forget how recent many of these tensions are. The arguments simmered but remained in abeyance for decades. From the mid-1990s and into the early 2000s, China successfully reached out to Southeast Asia and collaborated on infrastructure, finance and a free trade agreement.

Even Tokyo made efforts to get on with China back then. The first time he was in office, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to improve ties with Beijing and so did the opposition Democratic Party of Japan when it came to power. Japanese leaders recognised the economic interdependence that binds the two economies.

For the decade after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, relations between China and most of its neighbours grew stronger – largely without US involvement. The current tensions among Asians may be a deviation, rather than the norm.

This should give pause to US regional policy, post-pivot. Asia is not looking for a return to the era of unquestioned dominance, where America is the sole power setting the agenda. Asians don’t endorse the American rebalancing, at least not for the long term and at any price.

Take a look at the regional economy, which continues to outperform the rest of the world. The first fear for Asians is a possible Chinese slowdown. What happens in the US is secondary. Essentially, the future direction must be towards deeper Asian integration, rather than any re-emphasis on the American consumer – notwithstanding the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks.

America’s security role is more clearly appreciated. But this is on the back of current tensions. If a code of conduct is negotiated and if talks over mutually developing undersea resources in the area come to anything, Asian fears could ease.

Most must realistically acknowledge that, unless current trends change, China will be the dominant presence in the region. No one accepts being a vassal state. But neither do most demand full equality. Those countries that wish otherwise – like Japan and India – must ramp up their own armed forces rather than solely relying on the Pentagon.

Asians may yet accept that China will, in time, lead the region, but not that it will rule. One model for that kind of leadership has evolved in the region. In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the public emphasis is on consensus, yet behind the scenes bigger economies like Indonesia and others like Singapore quietly have influence. Working in this way, the group has emerged – if not without criticism – as relatively cohesive and peaceable.

Whether it is the US now, or China in the future, Asia needs a model of leadership that goes beyond the hegemony of any one power – even as some are more equal than others. As Xi and Obama seek a better understanding of their regional roles, that acknowledgement can mean they have one less thing to argue over.


Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and the author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post-Crisis Divide from America. This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post on 11th of June 2013.