September 24, 2010
China’s aggressive military moves in recent months have many countries worried about a Sino-centric Asian security future. But such a scenario is unlikely to unfold because the more China flexes its muscles, the more several of its neighbors turn to the United States for help.
China has not disguised its desire for a unipolar Asia but multipolar world. But instead of a Sino-centric Asia, China is unwittingly aiding an opposite scenario: America remaining the principal security anchor for Asia. Through its increasing assertiveness, China is reinforcing America’s role in Asia as the implicit guarantor of security and stability.
There are two other possible scenarios that can unfold even with a continued central security role for the United States in Asia. One prospect is the emergence of a constellation of Asian states with common interests working together to ensure power equilibrium in Asia. The other possibility is of an Asia characterized by several resurgent powers, including Japan, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and a reunified Korea.
Of the four scenarios, the least likely is the first one — a Sino-centric Asia. China’s neighbors increasingly are uneasy about its growing power and assertiveness. China’s actions, in fact, hardly make it a credible candidate for leading Asia.
Raw power cannot buy leadership. After all, leadership can come not from overbearing power, but from other states’ consent or tacit acceptance. In any event, China’s power may be vast and rapidly growing, yet it lacks the capability to militarily rout or compel any rival, let alone enforce its writ on Asia.
As China seeks to translate its economic clout into major geopolitical advantage in Asia, a nation that once boasted of "having friends everywhere" finds that its accumulating power might inspire awe, but its actions are spurring new concerns and fears.
Leadership rests not just on material power, but also on normative power. It demands the power of ideas that can galvanize others. Such power also serves as the moral veneer to the assertiveness often involved in the pursuit of any particular cause or interest.
The Cold War, for example, was won by the United States and its allies not so much by military means as by spreading the ideas of political freedom and market capitalism to other regions that undercut communism’s global appeal and made it incapable of meeting the widespread yearning for a better and more open life.
China has shown itself good at assertive promotion of national interests and in playing classical balance-of-power geopolitics. But to assume the mantle of leadership in Asia by displacing the United States, it must do more than just pursue its own interests or contain potential peer rivals. More fundamentally, what does China represent in terms of values and ideas?
With its defense spending having grown almost twice as fast as its gross domestic product (GDP), China is now beginning to take the gloves off, confident that it has acquired the necessary muscle.
This has been exemplified by several developments — from China’s inclusion of the South China Sea in its "core" national interests to its efforts to present the Yellow Sea as its virtually exclusive military-operation zone. Add to the picture the large-scale Chinese naval exercises in recent months, first off Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, then in the South China Sea and most recently in the Yellow Sea.
China also has increasingly questioned India’s sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern Indian state that Beijing calls "Southern Tibet" and claims largely as its own. Indian defense officials have reported a rising number of Chinese military incursions across the 2,521-mile Himalayan border.
The official PLA Daily has reported several significant military developments in Tibet in recent months, including the first-ever major parachute exercise to demonstrate China’s capability to rapidly insert troops on the world’s highest and largest plateau, Tibet. The new railroad to Tibet is now being used to supply "combat-readiness materials" to the Chinese air force stationed along the Himalayan belt.
China’s actions indeed are proving a strategic boon for Washington in strengthening and expanding U.S. security arrangements in Asia. In terms of power-projection force capabilities or the range of military bases and security allies in Asia, no power or combination of powers is likely to match the United States in the next quarter of a century.
While America’s continued central role in Asia is safe, the long-term viability of its security arrangements boils down to one word: Credibility. The credibility of America’s security assurances to allies and partners, and its readiness to stand by them when it comes to the crunch, will determine the future strength and size of its security-alliance system in Asia.
A combination of the second and third scenarios seems the most plausible prospect. A constellation of Asian states linked by strategic cooperation and with close ties to the United States has become critical to help institute power stability in Asia. But such a security constellation demands forward-looking policies in Washington, Tokyo, New Delhi, Seoul, Hanoi, Jakarta, Canberra and elsewhere.