America’s opportunities and main challenge as it seeks to contain China from dominating Asia
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M MWENDA | In the April 17th column (see: “Aiding the enemy: How US involvement in the Russia-Ukraine conflict is helping the rise of China to surpass America as the world’s leading power”, I argued that America’s core interest lies in Asia, not Europe and that Washington needs to be thinking more about how to contain China, not about fighting Russia in Ukraine.
Many readers told me the column was incomplete; that I did not explain the opportunities for America in Asia.
Washington can contain China because it is strategically better located. China has 14 neighbours on land, eight on sea. It has territorial disputes with some of them. Four of them (India, Pakistan Russia and North Korea) are nuclear armed and some of them, like Japan, can acquire nuclear weapons at very short notice. Some are potential failed states (Pakistan and North Korea) while some are powerful nations (Russia, Indonesia, Philippines, India and Japan – world’s 3rd largest economy).
Now compare this with America’s strategic position: no great powers nearby, no nuclear powers in the neighbourhood, and only two neighbours who share a border with it (Canada and Mexico) both of whom have very good relations with America.
So, anyone looking at a map would see that there is a lot of potential for Washington to build a balancing coalition in East Asia. It also means that if China seeks hegemony in East Asia, it would not find it easy.
As China’s power grows, as it acquires military capabilities that threaten its neighbours and as it begins to throw its weight around, its neighbours will seek to balance against it.
They could seek neutrality or to bandwagon with China. But this would mean accepting a position of permanent subordination and trusting in China’s indefinite benevolence. So, as long as opportunities to ally are available, we should expect balancing as the most likely option.
That is what is happening today. There is increasing strategic cooperation between the USA and India. America has restored military-to-military ties with Indonesia. The Philippines has allowed USA to use its military bases for the first time in 25 years. Washington has backed South Korea in its disputes with North Korea. It has sided with Japan over the Senkuku islands.
Therefore, China’s efforts to establish hegemony in East Asia will be resisted by the USA with the help of China’s neighbours, an advantage China does not have in the Western Hemisphere.
But there remain features in America’s balancing coalitions that are worrisome, suggesting that managing the alliances will be difficult. The first is the problem of collective action that bedevils all alliances. All countries in the alliance must share a common interest in containing China. But all have the incentive to buck-pass the work of containing China by letting others bear the burden. This leads alliance members to posture at each other, bluffing and bargaining. So alliance cohesion is very difficult.
Secondly the alliance network in Asia covers a huge territory. The Cold War NATO-coalition covered a short geographical distance – from Paris to Bonn is 400km. But New Delhi and Taiwan are 4,800km apart, Canberra to Taiwan is 7,200km, Tokyo to Singapore is over 4,200km. And some alliance members are separated from each other by large bodies of water. This means that pressure or an attack on one may not be felt as a direct threat by the other.
Assuming China attacked Taiwan; how would Australia or India feel and would they feel compelled to respond? This gives China an opportunity to play a divide and dominate strategy by making it hard for the different members of the coalition to aid one another in crisis.
The third problem is that the security environment in Asia, unlike in NATO, is not well institutionalised. Different countries in Asia don’t agree on the need for strong institutions. And few countries in Asia have commitments to each other. Instead they have mutual security treaties with the USA. And there are historical resentments among Asian countries that make it difficult to sustain a solid and workable coalition.
Also, European members of NATO and the USA traded a lot with each other and not with the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies. Most of U.S. allies in Asia have deep economic ties with China. So as China has grown, their trade ties with it have tended to deepen. China is their leading trade partner. This may need to alter their strategic calculations and make a trade off between their security needs and their economic and trade interests. So meeting security obligations may come with huge economic costs.
These challenges require strong and adroit alliance leadership yet Washington is distracted by the Ukraine war and finding difficulty focusing on Asia.
So while ingredients of a strong balancing coalition remain, there is no guarantee it will achieve sufficient cohesion to succeed on core tasks. Remember the issue is not how those alliances perform now but how they will perform ten, twenty or forty years from today.
There are counter arguments to what I am saying here. One could say that this is old fashioned geo politics, that the nuclear revolution makes a war between China and America less likely, and encourages them to be careful. But they may indulge in proxy wars, like USA did with the USSR. And, as the current war in Ukraine suggests, big powers can make stupid mistakes.
Also, the USA and China are interdependent with strong common interests in economic cooperation and many shared interests such as on climate change, terrorism etc. This, many analysts suggest, will dampen potential rivalry. But England and Germany were the leading trade partners in 1913; so was the USA and UK in the 19th century.
The U.S. may socialise China by bringing it into the existing international institutions. But as China grows stronger it may want to change those institutions to conform with its values and interests – not those of the U.S. and her western allies. The USA and USSR cooperated on nuclear non-proliferation but that did not stop their rivalry.
Finally, U.S. – China rivalry would be disastrous for both. Therefore, all need far-sighted leadership. But how can we be sure that both will always have prudent, far sighted leaders all the time? What if one gets a short-sighted leader (Joe Biden) or bellicose, xenophobic and impulsive leader like Donald Trump?