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October 3, 2011 8:19 pm
China or the US? Make your choice
By Gideon Rachman
The defining geopolitical drama of the next century will be the battle for power and influence between China and America. That emerging struggle is already posing awkward choices for Asian countries, caught between the two global giants.
On Monday the US senate pressed forward with a bill allowing for the imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods. Even if the protectionist drive in America now pauses for a while, this confrontational mood in the US poses a dilemma for China’s neighbours. China is now the largest trading partner for Japan, India, Australia, South Korea and most of the nations of south-east Asia. But these countries still have their most important military relationship with the US. How long can their economic and strategic interests point in different directions?
Not for long, if one is to judge by an editorial in the People’s Daily last week. The official newspaper of the Chinese Communist party took aim at “certain countries” who “think as long as they can balance China with the help of US military power, they are free to do whatever they want”.
The article was probably provoked by a statement from Japan and the Philippines, the previous day, in which the two countries promised to boost naval co-operation and implicitly disputed China’s extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea. But China’s warning could equally have been aimed at Vietnam, India, South Korea, Australia or Taiwan – all of whom have moved over the past year to strengthen military ties with America.
The irony, of course, is that it is precisely Chinese sabre-rattling, exemplified by that article in the People’s Daily, that is sending its neighbours running screaming into the arms of Uncle Sam. Until recently China seemed to be playing an intelligent waiting game – relying on its growing economic strength to draw its neighbours inexorably into a Chinese sphere of influence. Now the People’s Republic risks overplaying its hand – and so creating the anti-Chinese alliance that it both fears and denounces.
A more patient policy would make sense for China because it is likely to be the world’s largest economy by 2020. The US remains the world’s dominant military power – and is even the pre-eminent military force in China’s own Pacific backyard. But since political and military power usually track economic power, American hegemony in the Pacific Ocean may ultimately be unsustainable. It is this point that the People’s Daily was alluding to, when it warned – “No country wants to give back their ticket for the high-speed train of China’s economic development.”
With the US government borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that it spends – and China the largest foreign buyer of US debt – the Chinese are indirectly funding American military dominance of the Pacific. Even as America’s allies in the region move to strengthen ties with the US, they worry that America’s money problems will force the country to scale back in the Pacific. At the same time, China is building up its own military. American planners point to the development of a new range of Chinese missiles that directly threaten the airbases and aircraft carriers on which America bases its military dominance in the Pacific.
China’s neighbours are also worried by the country’s growing muscle – and its willingness to flex it. Over the past couple of years, China’s maritime disputes with Vietnam and Japan have taken on a new bitterness – with clashes on the high seas followed by bitter diplomatic exchanges. The Indians say that China is becoming more assertive about its claims to parts of Indian territory. The South Koreans are also jumpy about China’s relationship with the North.
The dark interpretation of China’s actions is that nationalist forces and the country’s military are becoming more influential in Beijing. A younger generation is coming to power, schooled to believe that China has been victimised by the outside world because it has been weak. The current contrast in the economic fortunes of China and America has also increased China’s confidence and assertiveness.
A more benign interpretation of Chinese actions is that the country now has a growing range of economic interests around the world – which makes it all but inevitable that it will spend a lot more on its military and will be tougher in asserting its interests. The hungry Chinese economy is dependent on imported energy – and would be vulnerable to a naval blockade. Building a few aircraft carriers and submarines, and pushing China’s claims to the energy riches of the South China Sea, might seem like a sensible precaution for the Chinese government – rather than the aggressive claim to regional dominance that its neighbours fear.
Yet even this relatively benign interpretation of China’s actions is not entirely reassuring. It suggests that China and the US are increasingly likely to interpret each other’s actions and alliances as threatening – and to respond in ways that then feed the other side’s perception of aggression. This is a pattern of great power behaviour that might ring a bell for students of 20th century history.
Yet amid all these tensions, diplomatic exchanges across the Pacific continue. Next month Barack Obama will host all the major powers of the region, including China, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit that will be held in the president’s native Hawaii. Perhaps Mr Obama should arrange a trip to Pearl Harbor to remind everybody of the dangers of strategic miscalculation in the Pacific.