In the wake of China’s spectacular advances on many fronts--economic, technological, military, diplomatic -- skeptics are grasping at straws if they are hoping for its failure. Even if the Chinese juggernaut is slowed or redefined, it is unlikely to be totally defeated.
That has been given added significance in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s first visit to Asia and a series of multilateral summits in the region, in which China has been perceived as the big winner. Indeed, the APEC, ASEAN and associated summits seemed to confirm this perception. Many analyses of the proceedings agree that China won this round of the struggle between China and other claimants for political advantage in the South China Sea disputes.
This is a clear setback for the US in its public diplomacy contest with China. China may have lost legally on July 12, 2016 when the arbitral tribunal in The Hague ruled that China has no historical rights in the South China Sea based on its nine-dash line. But having simply ignored the ruling, it is now winning politically.
Trump’s bizarre offer to “mediate” the disputes only reinforced that perception among allies and friends who had hoped for a strong commitment from him to defend their interests and their interpretation of international law.
These “advances” by China have stimulated a collective wringing of hands and various analyses as to why China will not achieve its goals. For example, Ely Ratner of the US Council on Foreign Relations argues that Trump will sooner rather later take a hard line with China. This is because in the snail’s pace filling out of his Asia team at the National Security Council, State Department and Defense Departments, “there is a near consensus among the political appointees [so far] –shared throughout the Administration –on the need for a more competitive strategy toward China. That will begin to show.”
Ratner thinks the most important factor in this coming harder line toward China will be domestic US politics. He says the dominant criticism in Washington across the political spectrum is that Trump has “failed to deliver on China,” particularly regarding trade. But these hopes ignore Trump’s recent iconoclastic statement regarding US foreign policy. According to Trump “I am the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be…”
In another stretch, Ratner falls back on the hardly reassuring half-hope, half-self-serving mantra that “the foundations of American power remain strong. The US economy is still the largest and most advanced in the world, with the best universities, the most capable military, strong demographics, and a vibrant civil society.”
He goes on to declare that “By comparison, take your issue area –economics, politics, environment, energy, demographics, ideology – and China’s position looks more perilous than dominant.” He concludes that “The signs are now pointing toward a harder US line against China, regardless of either the royal treatment Trump received in Beijing or his ‘great chemistry’ and very good relationship’ with Xi.” This sounds more like hope than current reality. It is not the way China’s Asian neighbors see their shared future.
Former US Ambassador Chas W. Freeman explored what could go wrong in China. He lists the many obstacles China will face that could blunt or curtail its rise to power in the region. Its economy could have a hard landing. Unemployment, income gaps and corruption could create serious social problems. Pollution could constrain growth. China could engage in and lose or have its ambitions stunted by a hot or cold war. Again –this is all possible –but so far has not been borne out.
Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute thinks Trump is working with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and South Korean President Moon Jae-in “to develop a long-term approach that contains and rolls back the threat” [from China]. He apparently clings to the hope that the off-again on -again “Quad” –-a possible incipient security arrangement between Australia, Japan, India and the U.S. --will constrain and contain China—and thus save the century.
Australian analyst Carl Thayer says that “There is a growing convergence of strategic interests in balancing China and maintaining the security of the South China Sea.” Perhaps so, but there will likely be many slips twixt the cup and the lip in realizing this hope.
India is still a poor nation and its economy is stalling. That means it will need to maintain economic relations with China—particularly to build its infrastructure. India is also technically still nonaligned and joining a strategic “Quad,” particularly one involving the US, might be a tough sell domestically. Both Australia and the US are increasingly economically intertwined with China to a degree that gives China some leverage over them as well. Prominent Australian analyst Hugh White argues that the “Quad” is a classic example of an empty gesture masquerading as a policy.”
A more realistic appraisal of the situation is provided by Evan Medieros, a former adviser to President Barack Obama on China. He concludes that “Despite all the craziness of Trump, the US remains in the game in Asia. But the US is no longer driving the agenda.”
The conclusion that China has “won” or is “winning” the economic, military and political contest in Asia is perhaps premature. But so are predictions that China will falter or fail in its ambition to be treated as an equal player with the US in the region –and beyond. Sticking one’s head in the sand or the clouds is not the appropriate response. The situation deserves a more realistic analysis and a pragmatic policy response. To avoid a probable pyrrhic conflict with great loss of blood and treasure – of its own and others’ – the US should accept China as an equal—at least in China’s own backyard.
Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou. A version of this appeared earlier in the International Public Policy Review, a scholarly review on China and Asian affairs.