China-U.S. relations retain a high degree of stability and do not operate within a zero-sum game. They do, however, operate against the background music of dueling narratives about the future regional Asian-Pacific security architecture.
Those competing visions may be on display in Myanmar, as 10 Southeast Asian member states’ and the 17 additional members’ foreign ministers and other senior officials gather in a country struggling to emerge from the yoke of military dictatorship. Indeed, in some ways Myanmar captures one facet of these contrasting visions for the heart of the region.
To see Myanmar as a confident and well-regarded chair and host of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) process is a milestone that seemed out of reach just a few years ago. An objective reading of Myanmar’s sharp turn to democratic rule finds benefits multiple approaches: ASEAN and other Asian countries’ engagement incentives and American and European cost-imposing sanctions.
President Thein Sein’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) opening address this week in the capital of Naypyitaw struck a lofty note, reminding all assembled that the “ultimate aims” must be prosperity, peace and “the promotion of human dignity.” The United States and China, and indeed the region, is divided over the priority of those aims and even more so the means of achieving them.
Secretary of State John Kerry will certainly emphasize these themes when he addresses ARF on August 10th. He will highlight that the rule of law, inclusive and transparent institutions, and international norms are the best way forward in the South China Sea or in other regional hotspots such as Iraq and Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is likely to emphasize China’s desire for cooperation with all its neighbors, citing as evidence China’s desire to offer a regional infrastructure bank and continue to expand regional trade. China is presently ASEAN’s largest trading partner–in 2013, China-ASEAN totaled nearly half a trillion dollars. Days before the ARF, China almost concurrently announced that the Thai military junta approved a $23 billion high-speed rail construction project and that a second joint gas pipeline in Myanmar began delivering gas. In the South China Sea, a source of growing tensions, China may portray its desire to build lighthouses on five islets as a regional public good for maritime safety.
But in all these ideas there are strings attached. China's multi-level strategy includes cultivating influence within ASEAN in order to keep the member countries from uniting against China's interests. Beijing does not want a united ASEAN calling for arbitration, a binding code of conduct, or an infrastructure freeze.. Its strategy incorporates expanding its influence over individual ASEAN countries. Infrastructure is a reward for those countries with access to resources to fuel China’s economy; trade deals mean reducing tariffs only, which does nothing to level the unfair advantage of large Chinese state owned enterprises; and lighthouses are but the kinder and gentler way of rebuffing the American call for a freeze on infrastructure in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
The weight of Chinese actions suggests that China hopes to push U.S. military power further from its near seas while trying to convince Southeast Asian countries that U.S. power and commitment will be unable to provide enduring security. The Chinese government has already mandated the People’s Liberation Army Navy to actively strengthen maritime control and management, and have pursued this strategy through various provocative maritime actions, notwithstanding removing the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oilrig from contested waters with Vietnam. Simultaneously, China has stated that “Asian” countries should determine security in Asia. China has been increasingly vocal in criticizing American alliances, suggesting instead a vague and exclusive new order. In China’s scenario where it pushes the United States out or domestic and other international crises pulls the United States out, Southeast Asian countries will have no recourse but to bandwagon with China in the long run.
Meanwhile, the United States wants an open, inclusive rules-based ASEAN with not just economic weight, but also increasing security cooperation to counter bad behavior, including from a rising China. To highlight this, Secretary Kerry will underscore the call for a moratorium on building up outposts on disputes islands, reefs and islets.
These dueling visions for the region will no doubt cause some discomfort among other participants. ASEAN members and other regional actors do not wish to choose between Chinese trade and American protection. Instead, the vast majority of states want both.
Consequently, the United States needs a strategy and not just tactical gambits that impose near-term costs on near-term Chinese maneuvers. That will require strategically engaging with China to manage unwanted competition; adapting an enduring presence to be effective; avoiding economic and political marginalization and reducing U.S. power to a single instrument of policy; building regional institutions centered on ASEAN and international law; and encouraging intra-Asian and intra-ASEAN cooperation, starting with claimant states in the South China Sea, but also other key members of ASEAN such as Indonesia and Singapore.
Regional vision is needed, but patience will be required to bring it about. Alas, the U.S. political process makes that difficult. Domestic economic interests have already stalled a signed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other partisan disagreements on both domestic and international issues have postponed high-level visits to the Asia-Pacific within the past year alone. If the United States and its other TPP stakeholders fail to complete negotiation on a new model of trade—one without sectoral exclusions and marked by reduced tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade—then surely China’s narrative and trade agreements will proceed to redefine the regional order. Perhaps, at least with respect to trade, bipartisanship will regain some sanity after the mid-term election this November.
But when it comes to standing up around the world for both U.S. interests and values, each U.S. administration must ultimately come to recognize that it is there to contribute what it can to a common American commitment to an inclusive, rules-based system so that more people may live more freely and in greater prosperity than if the global commons were thrown into constant jeopardy.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, where Cecilia Zhou is a Joseph S. Nye, Jr. National Security Intern.
More from CNAS
CommentaryHow China and the U.S. Are Competing for Young Minds in Southeast Asia
Business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month warned that China has overtaken the United States in the development of artificial intelligence and other emer...
By Kristine Lee
China's Artificial Islands Are Bigger (And a Bigger Deal) Than You Think
Surely you have heard the news — China has been dredging up coral reefs and creating artificial islands in the South China Sea with the purpose of enforcing their claims...
By CDR Thomas Shugart, USN
Beijing's Go Big or Go Home Moment in the South China Sea
China is preparing for its go or go home moment in the South China Sea and it appears they have chosen the right time to make a play for regional and, ultimately, global domin...
By Jerry Hendrix
Parting the South China Sea
July 12, 2016, marked a turning point in the long-standing disputes over the South China Sea. After more than three years of proceedings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration,...
By Mira Rapp-Hooper