The US and China in East Asia: Leadership and Influence

By Mercy A. Kuo / June 14, 2016 / The Diplomat

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia.  This conversation with  Evelyn Goh – Shedden Professor of Strategic Policy Studies at the Australian National University, where she is also Research Director of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, author of The Struggle for Order: Hegemony, Hierarchy and Transition in Post-Cold War East Asia (Oxford University Press, 2013); ‘Great Powers and Hierarchical Order in Southeast Asia: Analyzing Regional Security Strategies,’ International Security 32:3 (Winter 2007/8):113-57; and Constructing the US Rapprochement with China, 1961-1974 (Cambridge University Press, 2004), and editor of Rising China’s Influence in Developing Asia, published by Oxford University Press in May 2016 – is the 47th in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

Assess the positive and negative impacts of U.S. rebalance to Asia.

As far as East Asia is concerned, the chief benefit of the rebalance has been the reassurance of sustained U.S. strategic attention to the region at a time when Washington has remained deeply engaged in the Middle East. For the vast majority of East Asian states, the United States plays a crucial role as an offshore regional stabilizer or security guarantor, but because the United States is a superpower with forces and interests spread around the globe, there tends to be concern about U.S. strategic attention being over-stretched or focused elsewhere. Rhetorically at least, the Obama administration portrayed the rebalance as an unprecedented elevation of Asia to being Washington’s “primary global regional priority.”

At the same time, the main negative impact of the rebalance may have been too much U.S. attention to the region. In the important maritime realm, for instance, the rebalance has exacerbated the regional security dilemma. In the process of reassuring its allies like Japan and the Philippines and boosting support for its security partners like Vietnam, the Obama administration has appeared to embolden these states in pursuing their rival claims on territory and resources vis-à-vis China, especially in the South China Sea. Thus far rather than deterring Chinese assertiveness, these policies have helped create an insecurity spiral of tit-for-tat escalatory measures, seen most recently in U.S. FONOPS and Chinese responses. In such a climate, every action or policy is read as part of a zero-sum strategic contest. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is analyzed more for its potential to exclude China than as a highly ambitious trade deal that most East Asian states will have significant domestic difficulties acceding to, for example. This climate seriously complicates regional efforts to meet their shared imperative of keeping the U.S. security umbrella while not alienating China.

How is China using its growing influence in East Asia and to what ends? 

To the extent that influence is the ability to impact upon the strategic considerations of others, there is no doubt that China enjoys very significant influence across the economic and security realms in East Asia today. However, if we consider influence to be the effective exercise of power, to cause others to behave in ways that would bring about outcomes that China wants, then the picture is less clear. As my co-authors and I show in our new volume Rising China’s Influence in Developing Asia, China has notably relied on what I call “preference multiplying” – leveraging on shared preferences with other states regarding say, state intervention, aid conditionality, or human rights to mobilize policies or joint actions – as a key mode of influence in the region. When it has resorted to inducement, persuasion or coercion on issues in which there are conflicting preferences – such as territorial conflicts in the South China Sea – China has had very limited ability to change the stances of its neighbors. We find that there are two significant blindspots in Chinese approaches especially to the developing parts of East Asia: first, an apparent difficulty perceiving the dissonance between some of its own assertive actions and its benign rhetoric and “win-win” policies; and second, a tendency to ascribe agency only to major powers. The latter results in blaming the United States, for example, for “stirring the waters” and emboldening regional states like Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, which would otherwise not antagonize China.

My sense is that China’s aims in the region have not changed in recent years – Beijing seeks first, a stable regional environment that would be conducive to its economic development and political security; and second, a region that is more accepting and reflective of China’s renewed power and status in international society. To achieve these aims though, China’s main challenge will lie in how to empathize sufficiently with the vulnerabilities as well as sensitivities of the non-great power states so as to persuade and induce them fully to support China’s power and position in the region and the world. Read more…

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