China’s bilateral trade agreements with various Asian states, its creation of an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), its enthusiasm for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (launched by ASEAN in 2012), and the loans made by China’s Export-Import Bank and the China Development Bank (which together lend more to the region than the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank) to Asian states exemplify Beijing’s strategy of combining strategic reassurance with economic co-optation. For its part, Washington has tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade countries to shun the AIIB and support the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which excludes China.
China will have to tread the fine line between greater regional ambition and reassuring its neighbors so as to avert an encircling coalition. The United States and its Asian allies and partners will also confront new obstacles. For a generation, several Asian states entrusted their security to Washington. But China’s growing military capabilities will surely lead them to consider the extent to which the United States will be willing to take risks to defend them. That, in turn, will lead these states toward new strategic calculations—some of which are already visible—that have far-reaching consequences.
The United States has sought to reassure its Asian allies that it remains dependable. Thus, to counter China’s military strategy of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD), the Pentagon has developed its own counterdoctrine: the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC), which supersedes the Air-Sea Battle plan. The United States will have to consider the dangers of being drawn in on behalf of states that are far weaker than China yet engaged in increasingly intense quarrels with it over the ownership of minor island groups in an area in which sheer geography provides Beijing with major advantages. (As for gargantuan India, it still has little to offer Washington, or Japan, as a strategic partner in East Asia and itself remains exposed to preponderant Chinese power on its northern flank.) An American guarantee could provide much-needed reassurances to these weaker countries while deterring China. But it could also encourage risk-taking by allies that implicates the United States without reducing China’s resolve: the familiar engagement-entrapment problem, which, in this particular manifestation, could lead to reassurance unwittingly encouraging recklessness.
A commonplace argument holds that China’s island grabbing and saber rattling reflect Beijing’s larger strategy of eventually controlling local sea-lanes. But seaborne trade that moves through the Malacca Straits to and from northeast Asia supplies the Chinese economy’s lifeblood. OBOR will never replace, nor even substantially reduce, the sea route’s essentiality for China; rail and road transport to Europe will remain significantly more expensive. Hence, China would face crippling costs—to say nothing of major military risks—by disrupting access to such Asian maritime passages. Such a gambit would provoke American countermoves in places, such as the Malacca Straits and the Indian Ocean, where China’s advantages attenuate sharply. It is hard to imagine how blocking critical sea-lanes would further China’s interests, save within the context of a major war. Even then the economic consequences would prove catastrophic given Beijing’s dependence on trade; in 2011–15 trade accounted for between 42 and 51 percent of Chinese GDP. China relies heavily on energy flows from Africa and the Middle East, which together accounted for nearly two-thirds of Chinese oil imports, which in turn, account for roughly 60 percent of total consumption. For energy and other forms of trade, Beijing cannot place its bets on the land routes it has been building (or planning) to reduce its reliance on the Malacca route.
Should Asia become riven with conflict, leaders will be even more hard-pressed to muster the trust and cooperation needed to address serious collective challenges. These include climate change and the water-shortage-induced disputes festering between upstream and downstream states in Asia. Similarly, while arms control and confidence-building measures—especially in such flashpoints as the Sino-Indian border, the Taiwan Straits, the East China Sea and the South China Sea—may help reduce tensions, they too will be harder to negotiate. Finally, freewheeling political-military rivalries reduce trust among states and consequently their capacity, even willingness, to develop procedures for managing crises that could spiral into armed confrontations, even war.
ASIAN COUNTRIES will not lack for opportunities to benefit from the economic resurgence of their continent, home to three of the world’s largest economies. Many of them, China included, have acquired a stake in economic interdependence—finance, trade and foreign direct investment—substantial enough to make military recklessness a costly choice. All of them understand that a regional conflict will have catastrophic consequences. Still, one cannot assume that Asia’s growing wealth and interdependence will guarantee stability—that the logic of what Richard Rosecrance called the “trading state” mentality will win out. There is scant historical evidence for such an optimistic inference, which verges on economic determinism and overlooks, for example, how deeply economically intertwined the countries that went to war in 1914 were. States are not motivated by economic calculations alone; they are not bankers or accountants. Pride, fear, hubris, misperception, nationalism and sheer stupidity shape what they do and how they do it. As Asia’s power balances shift, there will inevitably be occasions when these noneconomic influences drive decisions, overriding economic logic.
The Asia of the Cold War was a dangerous and often bloody place. But its alignments were predictable and its problems readily identifiable. That is no longer the case. North Korea’s recent nuclear tests offer further evidence of the volatility of the region. That volatility, however, underscores why America is becoming a coveted partner for smaller regional powers. China may be rising, but an American retreat is not in the cards.
Rajan Menon is Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York/CUNY and senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University. His most recent book, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, was published in June.
Image: U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships underway in formation as part of a photo exercise on the final day of Keen Sword 2011. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy