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President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Barack Obama will be meeting in California in a bid to usher in what has been billed by Beijing as “a new type of great power relationship”, a decisive engagement between the top leadership from the big established and ascendant power in the world. Indeed, it is another “Mao-Nixon” moment in this bilateral relationship, which will not only chart the future course of China-US ties but also have an undeniable impact on the rest of the world, connected as we are like never before.
More than 40 years ago, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger successfully opened China’s door and forged an anti-Soviet Union coalition with their Chinese counterparts. During the meeting with Chairman Mao, the Chinese top leader deliberately put annoying issues like Taiwan, the Vietnam War and Japan aside and had a talk with the “anti-communist warrior” Nixon over philosophy. As Mao said, ‘the Taiwan problem is a small matter but the world is a big thing’.And yet again, the China-US relationship is at a critical juncture where the two leaders are expected to strike a grand bargain but they can not afford the luxury of waxing eloquent on philosophy. It must be a long laundry list with a wide range of thorny topics. Cyber-hacking allegations, trade practices disputes, and contrarian positions on international hot-spots like Syria, Iran, North Korea have marred relations between the two countries.
Asia- Stage set for conflict?
A build-up to ‘the new type of great power relations’ requires strategy, and strategy requires setting priority. The most pressing and challenging task is to recalibrate China-US relations in Asia where the interests of these two countries are most overlapping.
It seems that Asia’s era of ‘rebalancing’ has just begun. The Obama administration’s rebalancing toward Asia has to be singled out as a cataclysmic strategic move in recent years and has strong implications for China-US relations. From the US perspective, the substance of such a ‘pivot’ (pivot is the word used by Hillary Clinton rather than Barack Obama) makes perfect strategic sense.
However, the substance of the pivot as well as the way it is conducted (the policy posture) exacerbated China’s deep-seated suspicions of US long-term intentions. In particular, the lack of impartiality in the South China Sea dispute further lends support to China’s perception of the US’s ‘not so holy’ intentions in Asia.
With the spur of US rebalancing strategy, most of the regional countries have had their own rebalancing moves to follow. Japan is playing a kind of dual-hedging strategy, which means that it is hedging against the rise of China in the short term as well as hedging against the possible relative decline of the US.But such dual-hedging is very risky and Japan has failed to gain a nuanced sense of the complexity of the dynamics between China and the US. Japan seems to be willing to take advantage of the US pivot and oversee confrontational China-US relations emerge. This, however, simply runs counter to Japan’s own interests. The Philippines are in a similar quagmire.
Australia’s incredible balancing act
Australia and South Korea are adopting a strategy far niftier than the one employed by Japan and the Philippines. It is the bridging roles that Canberra and Seoul try to play between China and the US – their primary economic partner and indispensable security guarantor. As some Australian politicians have said in recent times, Canberra’s foreign policy should be determined no longer by history (Europe and the US) but by geography (proximity to Asia).
They are well aware of the hard truth that you cannot pursue economic gains at the expense of security interests, and vice versa but you have to find a middle and balanced way which can best serve the long-term and overall interests. They are in a desperate search for the deft middle power diplomacy they need to follow.
In a Sydney Morning Herald article on May 28, strategic analyst Hugh White condemned Australian political leaders for “shamelessly evading this question” of choosing between China and the US. “If they turn out to be wrong, and we do have to choose, all our ideas about Australia’s future will be overturned. How can we be secure without America? How can we be prosperous without China? These are the questions they want to evade, because they have no answers to them.”
In the meantime, India has been carefully safeguarding the strategic autonomy and closely watching the changing strategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific Asia. India is neither the natural ally of the US nor the destined enemy of China. Indians have their very special wisdom.Time for a rejig
Both Beijing and Washington are, of course, keenly aware of the increasingly complex tangle. With Myanmar repositioning itself between China, the US and Australia – one of the US’s closest allies – doing more to reassure China, the regional equilibrium is in constant and significant flux.
For its part, China should realise that regional countries’ decision to support the US ‘pivot’ strategy emanates more from a broader geopolitical perspective of structural shifts in regional and international security politics than from merely focusing on a rising China. And China’s standing as the second biggest economy of the world and biggest trading partner for most regional countries means that China is unlikely to be marginalised and excluded, let along contained.
Policymakers in Washington have, for now, successfully, appealed to the Asian countries concerns about China. But continued economic growth and inclusive regional integration are also dominant in the new Asian narrative. While renewed US attention to the region is welcome, the American rebalance toward Asia should not be framed or perceived as an “anything but China” proposition.
The world and Asia are big enough to accommodate a rising China and a reinvigorated US. Neither China nor America, as High White puts it in his book, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, “can hope to win a competition for primacy outright, so both would be best served by playing for a compromise.”
It is time for Xi and Obama to reclaim the conversation and convince the world that China and the US are capable of recalibrating their relations in Asia in a positive and triple-win manner.