CANBERRA –As China gets closer to overtaking the United States as the world’s largest economic power, and its disinclination to accept US military dominance of the Western Pacific grows more obvious, America’s Asia/Pacific allies and friends are becoming increasingly anxious about their longer-term strategic environment. The nightmare scenario for policymakers from Seoul to Canberra is a zero-sum game in which they are forced to choose between their great economic dependence on China and their still-enormous military reliance on the US.
No one believes that the US-China relationship will end in tears any time soon, not least because of the mutually dependent credit and consumption embrace in which the two countries are currently locked. But the outlook a decade or two from now is already generating a mass of analysis and commentary, focusing on the tensions that have long festered in the South China Sea, bubble up from time to time in the East China Sea, and are forever lurking in the Taiwan Strait. What, if anything, can those regional countries with competing interests and loyalties do to avoid the pain that they would certainly face if US-China competition turned violent?
Probably no single one of us can do very much to influence the larger picture. But there are several messages – some accommodating, but others quite tough – that could very usefully be conveyed collectively by Japan, South Korea, the major ASEAN players, and Australia to China and the US, spelling out how each could best contribute to keeping the region stable.
Giants are not always especially tolerant of lesser mortals, but in my experience the US tends to listen most and respond best to its friends when its policy assumptions are being challenged and tested, while China has always respected strength and clarity of purpose in its partners and interlocutors. And messages coming in convoy are harder to pick off than those offered in isolation.