VASILIS TRIGKAS | South China Morning Post
HONG KONG - The recent war of words between China and the US at the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea stunned geopolitical pundits around the world and attests to ominous dynamics in the Asia-Pacific.
As the two powers increasingly see issues in terms of security, there is a real danger of matters escalating into a strategic competition for regional alliances.
Just two days before the opening of the Port Moresby summit, an informal meeting took place in Singapore. There, US vice-president Mike Pence met the leaders of India, Japan and Australia.
This was the third meeting of leaders of the four democratic Asia-Pacific states known as ‘the Quad’, and, while the structure has not been institutionalised into an alliance, American strategists have called for the crystallisation of an archipelagic NATO.
American strategists contend that never has the US faced a challenger with the geo-economic and military might of China.
As Beijing positions itself strategically, arming islets in the South China Sea and developing advanced missiles which could bar the entry of US aircraft carriers to the second island chain (the Japan-Guam-Indonesia line), Americans cannot follow their old strategy from the days when Soviet forces in Siberia’s far east could easily be neutralised by the US’ forward-deployed forces.
This time, more structured defence cooperation is necessary, following the NATO model but in an archipelagic calibration to meet the needs of war at littoral environments in the South and East China seas.
Washington has thus pushed for enhanced security cooperation with Japan, India and Australia and doubled down on its economic and security engagement with the Quad.
Japan was quick to support the Quad and urged the US to adopt the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ to attract India. India has joined the talks but carefully preserved its strategic autonomy, opposing a military alliance.
Meanwhile, Australia sees the Quad as a means to push against China’s influence in its northern region and send a clear signal to Beijing that its economic dependency on China will not limit Canberra’s protection of its core national interests.
While Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi mocked the Quad as an idea that would dissipate “like the sea foam”, China should not underestimate US determination to form a balancing coalition.
The evolution of the Quad into an archipelagic NATO would be the strategic climax of America’s new formative security architecture in East and Southeast Asia, complementing Washington’s designs for the ‘joint concept for access and manoeuvre in the global commons’ as a counter to China’s rising techno-military power in the region.
According to that doctrine, US forces would have to penetrate Chinese airspace, take out Chinese air defences and offensive missile capabilities, and then move US aircraft carrier battle groups closer to China’s shores.
As China has marched on, technologically, faster than expected, some Americans now urge much closer security cooperation.
Undoubtedly, countries in the region have viewed a US-led alliance with fear and scepticism. Lee Kuan Yew – who turned Singapore into a staunch US security ally – even declared that Asian nations must never be asked to choose between Beijing and Washington but always cooperate with both.
Meanwhile, Yan Xuetong, a strategist at Tsinghua University, foresaw the US effort for a new institutionalised net of alliances, arguing that China should pre-emptively abandon its non-alignment principle and provide credible security assurances to regional partners. ‘Wallet diplomacy’ alone cannot build a coalition countering US containment.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has declined that call. He may have overseen strong security cooperation with Moscow and, to some extent, Pakistan but he has not gone so far as to implement a security alliance.
Xi has also been cautious on the global outreach of the Chinese military, preferring to outsource security tasks to private contractors instead.
Unlike China’s grand declarations about the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s security policy has been low-key, reflecting the imbalance of military power with Washington.
America’s strategic capital in terms of creating and managing alliances far outranks China’s, as Washington has multiple security pacts and more than 800 military or naval bases across the world. China has one - in Djibouti.
The US has 11 fully operational aircraft carrier battle groups to China’s one – with another on the way.
When the US calls for an open Indo-Pacific and performs freedom of navigation operations, France, the UK and others immediately endorse the message. When China makes a case for the ‘nine-dash line’, no one echoes it.
To be sure, the formation of an archipelagic NATO is not inevitable. India and Japan will be pivotal powers to catalyse or forestall such an alliance.
Thus, Beijing needs to provide Tokyo and Delhi with the appropriate strategic signals and reassurances that, as China’s power rises, its demands for a revision of the regional order will not be expansive.
China should now give priority to ending the long-time dispute with India over the Aksai Chin border area. The relationship with Tokyo is more challenging as wartime historical rhetoric remains deleterious, but does Japan deserve a life sentence without parole for past crimes?
Comprehensive Sino-Japanese engagement would bring enormous benefits to Asia and the world.
Australia is not a lost cause for China, either. However close the Australians have been to the Anglo-Saxon world, they still have a positive image of China. Careful engagement could help heal some recent wounds.
US president Donald Trump avoided the recent APEC summit, sending in his place vice-president Pence, who concluded his diatribe against China by referencing the Bible – a book that is not part of the heritage of this part of Asia.
America has competent bureaucrats but with its ahistorical message and Trump’s mercurial character, the future of Asia may be in China’s hands. If it can tame its own hubris and reassure wary neighbours, a peaceful, cooperative and flourishing regional order awaits.
Vasilis Trigkas is an Onassis Scholar and research fellow in the Belt and Road Strategy Centre at Tsinghua University