China’s remarkable economic transformation during the last few decades is changing the geostrategic landscape in Asia. This will have implications for the economic and political future of the region and beyond. While much of the change has come through China’s rise it is also partly the result of shrinking American ability to effectively enforce the US dominated system laid out after the Second World War. It is therefore naive to assume that China would forego a bigger reginal role corresponding to its economy, like every other rising power has done in history.
Pushing its way towards a new equation in great power relations China now challenges the American leadership as the foundation of the regional political order. The Chinese intentions are clear — to become the primary power in Asia and extend it beyond with time. According to the Chinese national narrative, the country will only be taking its historic leadership position among nations.
China is convinced that from ‘Pivot of Asia” launched during President Barack Obama years and now through the Quad (includes Australia, India, Japan and US) the US intends to contain China through its strings of alliances around Asia and Pacific. The large presence of American forces around China adds to its anxiety. Early this year US National Defence Strategy listed China and Russia as the biggest threats to its security. And now the US trade war against China leaves no doubt in China’s mind of the US intentions. Hence the Chinese challenge to the US-led status quo. Following Deng Xioping’s reforms launched in 1978, China integrated well in the post-war America-led global economic order. But China, following its phenomenal economic rejuvenation feels constrained by the limits of this order. China is now the lead sponsor of Brics Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). In addition to some smaller regional initiatives China’s $900 billion (Dh3.3 trillion) Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the most comprehensive and ambitious plan that seeks to engage China among the countries on continents of Asia, Africa and Europe and the oceans around. The initiative, though sceptics think otherwise, has brought in a lot of optimism to many developing, cash-strapped countries across Asia, Africa and less privileged parts of Europe. China’s growth and engagement means that it is displacing American presence in Asia and other regions. China’s message is clear — China’s return as a great economic power is mutually beneficial for China and the world.
Every Asian country now trades more with China than the US — an imbalance that is growing as China’s economy outpaces that of the US. Asian and other nations look up to China for development assistance. China now clearly has an increasing ability and demonstrates its intention to use its economic muscle and expects its partners to support its political and strategic objectives. Unable to meet the Chinese economic challenge, the US is focusing more on military alliances, and export of military hardware. In 2017, the US accounted for 34 per cent of all weapons sales and the $42 billion revenue is a 25 per cent increase over the previous year. For the US it is wrong to assume that buying American weaponry ties nations to its foreign policy goals.
Securing seas and ports
As the biggest mercantile nation in the world China needs to secure the seas around. In addition, China cannot achieve its great power status effectively unless it controls its front yards in South China Sea and North China Sea. China’s claim on much of the South China Sea and its construction of facilities that can allegedly be used for military purposes mean that China is prepared to challenge the American military presence in the South China Sea. China has nonetheless, guaranteed freedom of navigation in the sea for peaceful purposes. History teaches us that nations that acquire wealth need effective military muscle to preserve and expand their economic power. China is no exception. As the biggest mercantile nation, China’s dependence on open seas and their security and its prosperity is now a necessity. Hence, its need to secure seas around its land mass and secure ports on its trading routes.
As the wheels of history move, the old order must give way to the new. This rivalry, when two powers are jostling to define the economic, political and strategic landscape of the continent, is defining the future of the Asia. So instead of resisting the creation of a new order, Asian leadership must think how to make this inevitable transformation peaceful. Such a course will avoid conflict among the Asian states who will be saved from being divided into camps of status quo and the progressives. This means recognising and adjusting to the scale and risks of escalating rivalry between the US and China. It requires acceptance that the old order is unsustainable — the new world order is coming whether we like it or not.
Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as Pakistan’s Consul General in Dubai during the mid 1990s.