Serenity in the South China Sea

CANBERRA – Diplomats and alcoholics don’t always have as much in common as is sometimes assumed. But there is useful guidance for policymakers in the Reinhold Niebuhr prayer that Alcoholics Anonymous has made its own: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

America’s response to China’s rise – and in particular to its assertiveness in the South China Sea – is a case in point. The United States should accept many dimensions of China’s economic, and now military, growth with as much serenity as it can muster. But there are some that call for pushback, and the jury is still out on America’s capacity to make the right calls.

The central, painful, reality that the US must accept is that a major shift in the Asia-Pacific balance of power has already taken place. The days of America’s unequivocal primacy and unilateral capacity to write the rules are over.

Economically, the writing is on the wall. Despite US opposition to China’s Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, much of the region has embraced it. And, again despite US resistance, it seems inevitable that the renminbi will join the International Monetary Fund’s reserve-currency basket. Then there is the immense difficulty the US is having in bringing its China-excluding Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact to fruition.