The U.S.- China Rivalry Has Asia on Edge: Can "Middle Powers" Create Stability?

"Crafting 'middle-power coalitions,' as a complement to engaging China and deepening strategic partnership with America, would enjoy domestic political support, while creating the basis for expanding India’s role in Asian security."

This week’s AUSMIN talks in Sydney, involving the U.S. secretary of state and secretary of defense and their Australian ministerial counterparts, have reaffirmed the Australia-U.S. alliance as a cornerstone of security in Indo-Pacific Asia. Understandably, Canberra has a deep reliance on its relationship with Washington, just as Tokyo and other U.S. allies do on theirs.

Yet in a changing Asia, not even steadfast allies like Australia can afford to put all their eggs in the alliance basket. Thus in a new research paper, we argued that it is time for new and creative ways to deal with Asia’s strategic uncertainties: the creation of “middle-power coalitions,” new security arrangements that include neither China, nor the United States. This is not a replacement for partnership with America or efforts to engage with China, but a complement to both approaches.

Along with Australia, a country well placed to start this process is India. Before flying to Sydney, Defense Secretary Hagel was in New Delhi for a high-level security dialogue with India’s new Modi government. His distinctly Indo-Pacific itinerary reflects the growing importance of India and Australia as players in Asia’s emerging strategic dynamic.

The following illustrates a defining part of that dynamic: A rising China’s assertiveness and uncertainties about America’s response (Hagel’s travels notwithstanding) are causing many countries in the region to look beyond traditional approaches to security—not only U.S. alliances, but also nonalignment and multilateral institutions like ASEAN.

Bouts of coercive behavior against Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan have alarmed the security establishments in many countries, making them ponder whether this is the template for how a powerful China will more generally behave. Meanwhile relations between China and the United States have been on a troubled trajectory. Moments of cooperation, like China’s recent involvement in multination naval exercises off Hawaii, cannot mask mistrust—China sent an extra ship to spy on the same exercise.

At the same time, there are likely to be lingering concerns in many regional capitals about American attention and resolve. These arise from perceptions of a U.S. policy establishment divided on questions both about coping with Beijing’s rise, and about U.S. global leadership more generally. Despite Washington’s assurances, many Asian nations worry about the constancy of American purpose in Asia. For example, the Obama administration has moved from seeking a degree of accommodation with China to announcing a high-profile pivot to Asia and then a seeming de-emphasis of the rebalance strategy—all in the past six years.

Asians also worry about the combination of America’s continuing preoccupation with the Middle East, the breakdown of post–Cold War understandings with Russia, hints of renewed isolationism and an increasingly dysfunctional domestic polity in Washington. All of this will make the United States a less predictable variable in the Asian power calculus.

Many governments in the region weigh the risks of U.S.-Chinese confrontation and conflict. But they must also be pondering a very different long-run scenario, an American accommodation of China that subordinates the interests of the many countries in between.

In theory, it would seem normal and acceptable for a rising power’s interests to be accommodated. The realities of the current Indo-Pacific strategic situation, however, mean that an effort at accommodation would bring major risks and uncertainties: accommodation would itself be destabilizing. Any form of accommodation between the dominant power, the United States, and the rising challenger, China, would involve Washington’s ceding additional space and role for Beijing in the management of the regional order. This would have been welcome if Beijing’s neighbors were politically comfortable with China’s rise. Today they are not. For those in Asia with significant concerns about how Beijing might use its growing power, American support or legitimization of a larger Chinese role would create strategic anxieties.