China's Diplomacy Has the U.S. Playing Defense

Since 9/11, American policy in Asia has appeared to lack energy and focus, creating a void that China has moved to fill.

Since 9/11, American policy in Asia has appeared to lack energy and focus, creating a void that China has moved to fill.  Confident and self-assured, China has been able to translate newfound economic clout into political influence.  China's rise in Asia against the backdrop of U.S. preoccupation elsewhere was the key theme that emerged from a public hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission earlier this month.  

At our hearing, Dr. Bates Gill of the Center for Strategic and International Studies succinctly summed up this issue. The Chinese, he said, "are making significant inroads politically, diplomatically, economically certainly and even militarily throughout the region." John Tkacik, of the Heritage Foundation, testified: "While Washington is preoccupied with the war on terror, the occupation of Iraq, the North Korean crisis and dozens of lesser brushfires, China is patiently and systematically amassing a geopolitical presence of superpower proportions in Asia."  Facilitating China's moves to increase its political capital in the region, China's neighbors have the impression that they have been downgraded on Washington's priority list.  Contrast this with China's recent activity in the region.  Appearances count, and U.S. policy in Asia is urgently in need of a face-lift. 

China has seen a dramatic rise in its share of Asian trade and investment flows.  Moreover, Chinese initiatives such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia and a proposed Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN have been warmly received. Relative to its aggressive moves in the mid 1990s in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, China has also appeared in recent years to adopt a softer approach to relations with its neighbors. Throughout the region, pundits have praised China for its recent dedication to a peaceful resolution of long-standing differences and its support of free trade and markets. 

At the recent APEC leaders meeting in Bangkok, for example, China outshone the U.S., projecting itself as a more attentive and profitable alternative to a U.S. preoccupied with terrorism and security relations.  Many Asian leaders left Bangkok praising Chinese President Hu's economic initiatives and wondering why President Bush had downplayed the  "E" in APEC.  Likewise, after recent visits by Presidents Bush and Hu to Australia, the Asian press reviewed Hu's performance much more favorably. These assessments were no doubt influenced by the Chinese President's promises of new mega- trade deals with Australia in the energy field.

For the region's future, the implications of China's economic rise vis-à-vis the U.S. are significant.  Chinese economic and political practices represent a disquieting alternative to U.S. norms. International labor standards are essentially ignored in the rush for production, transparency is clouded by corruption and insider deals, environmental protection takes a backseat and democratic principles are suppressed by authoritarian "realism." Yet, the "success" of China's model is no doubt making a strong impression on its Asian neighbors.

Notably, Washington's focus on Iraq, terrorism and North Korea may actually be limiting our ability to secure the cooperation of Asian nations in achieving our priority aims.  If Asian nations-particularly those in Southeast Asia- feel that Washington has adopted a strategy that stresses immediate American concerns above their own long-term development needs, China's purely economic objectives may seem more attractive. 

There are also implications for Taiwan.  China requires its regional partners to accept its "One-China" principle. In the interest of latching themselves to China's engine of economic growth, Asian nations have demonstrated little overt sympathy or support for Taiwan's autonomy and democratic development.

The overall message of our hearing was clear; the U.S. needs to reassert itself as a vital Pacific power, attentive to the needs of our traditional partners throughout the region.  We need to show that we care about issues that matter to Asians even as we work to strengthen their democracies.  Are there any obvious or compelling reasons why we should leave the field open to a China that plays by different rules? 

One clear vehicle for the U.S. to reassure its partners in Asia is to shore up alliance relationships with Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines.  An important multilateral vehicle is APEC, which should remain focused on economic objectives and be boosted by more active American participation, innovation and high-level political support for its regional economic agenda.  Our long-term economic and security interests in Asia are too important to fall victim to a distracted America. 


The author is Vice Chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.  The complete transcript of the Commission's December 4 hearing, "China's Growth as a Regional Economic Power: Impacts and Implications," is available on the Commission's website, at