Friday, May 8, 2015

A frosty peace beckons for the US, China

By Philip Stephens -

May 8

Asia takes the long view. I once sat in on a discussion in Beijing about the future of American power. The examination question set at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations asked where the United States would be in 2050. In a country usually shy of displaying differences within the ruling elites, it generated a strikingly animated debate.

On one side were those who were convinced that the ingredients of US power — geography, demography, resources, economic vitality, technological prowess and military might among them — would endure. On the other were those who said the US would go the way of great powers through history, laid low by political stasis, cultural decadence and economic decline. No one took a vote, but the first group had the better of the argument.

This debate took place before the global financial crash and the Beijing Olympics. My guess is that had the discussion been repeated a few years later, the pessimists (or were they optimists?) would have carried the day. The story I have heard over and again in East Asia these past few years has been one of impending American retreat. Allies as well as adversaries have doubted the US would stay the course.

So for most things in life, so for geopolitics: Fashions change. After casting around for a headline for its annual forum, the Asan Institute, South Korea’s leading foreign policy think tank, settled on a question: Is America Back? The response from the policymakers who gathered in Seoul last week was a more than tentative “yes”. Reports of America’s demise had indeed been premature. Witness the signing of updated US-Japanese military cooperation agreements during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Washington.

Many would say the US never left. Instead, Washington had been preoccupied with finding a new approach to the most tumultuous global upheavals for a couple of centuries or so. In much the same vein, others thought the mood change reflected a reappraisal of America’s fundamental strengths, rather than any fresh initiatives flowing from US President Barack Obama’s Asian pivot.

Not long ago, the US was described by recession, rising deficits and political gridlock. Now growth has returned, the deficit is receding and, wonder of wonders, Democrats and Republicans are working together in the US Congress. Shale gas and oil can be added to all the other things that give America an edge.


If the US is back, China has arrived. After a long period of diffidence, Beijing is seeking to connect economic power to geopolitical ambition. Whether through airbases on disputed islands in the South China Sea, aid deals with Pakistan, a new Silk Road across Central Asia or the creation of regional financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, President Xi Jinping has shed any residual inhibitions about staking out China’s claims. The falling out between Beijing and Washington about the AIIB promises to be the first of many. Harsh though it is to say, the chaos in the Middle East is a geopolitical sideshow when set against the reordering of great power relationships in Asia. The terms of the global order during the 21st century will be set, above all, by the three C’s in the Sino-American relationship. So far, cooperation and competition have sat uneasily alongside each other, but there is only a short distance to the third C, conflict.

Beijing says there is nothing aggressive about its new worldview. One of the roles of great powers is to underwrite the security of their own neighbourhood. It does not plan to push the US out of East Asia this year or next, but Washington’s network of bilateral alliances is a hangover from the Cold War. The moment will come when Asia takes control of its geopolitical affairs, presumably with China’s leadership. It is time, I heard one ranking Chinese official say, for the West to throw off “old thinking”.

For its part, Washington is giving up on the idea that a risen China can be co-opted as a stakeholder in the present global order. In a report likely to be picked up by Republican presidential hopefuls, Mr Robert Blackwill, an influential official in former President George W Bush’s administration, calls for a measurably more robust posture. Co-authored by the Carnegie scholar Ashley Tellis and published by the Council on Foreign Relations, the report Revising US Grand Strategy Toward China outlines a plan to draw together all the elements of US power with the goal of maintaining America’s primacy in East Asia.

“Primacy” is the neuralgic word here for some US allies as much as for Beijing. The legitimacy of the US presence in the western Pacific rests on the simple fact that many other governments want it to remain as a counter to China. But balancing Beijing’s weight is one thing. Nervous as they are, China’s neighbours have a powerful economic interest in getting on with Beijing. A US that sought permanent preponderance would be inviting a collision. Unstoppable forces and immovable objects come to mind.

Were he around, Greek historian and philosopher Thucydides would probably say all this leads inexorably to conflict. The rest of us might hope history has moved on since the Peloponnesian war. Neither side wants a cold war, let alone military hostilities. Things, though, are going to get rough. The best on offer may be a distinctly frosty peace.



Philip Stephens is an associate editor and chief political commentator at the Financial Times. 

[See also "Understanding China" for another perspective.]

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