Tim Summers
Senior Consulting Fellow, Asia Programme (based in Hong Kong)
Seeing US-Chinese competition as the main variable in the region could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with US President Barack Obama before a welcoming ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People on 12 November 2014 in Beijing. Photo by Getty Images.Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with US President Barack Obama before a welcoming ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People on 12 November 2014 in Beijing. Photo by Getty Images.

The visit to the United States of Chinese President Xi Jinping is once again focusing attention on the prospects for US-China relations and their wider implications.

Many in the US and in the region seem to focus on the US-China relationship at the expense of anything else. But as we argue in a new Chatham House research paper, we need to move beyond narratives which reduce developments in the region to a two-dimensional US-China dynamic.

The reasons are important. Seeing US-Chinese competition as the main variable in the region could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And a simplistic focus on the US-China relationship could even re-invoke Cold War-type bipolar mentalities that exacerbate tensions rather than relieve them. We need to widen the aperture through which we evaluate policy choices.

Power diffusion

The tendency to focus excessively on the US-China nexus is a result of the rapid increase in Chinese economic scale and influence. But the 'rise of China' is just one of a number of narratives of regional power distribution which feature across Asia. Other narratives include what we call 'global flux', the idea that the main shifts in power distribution are between the developed West and emerging economies more broadly, or alternatively a process of ‘power diffusion’ whereby regional changes are fostering multiple centres of power in Asia-Pacific with none dominant.

After one takes a comprehensive look at the main instruments of influence in the region, from military power to diplomacy, economic strength, development assistance, and control over natural resources, this latter narrative appears to be more accurate than the others.

For example, for all the discussion of the US-China military dynamic, spending on traditional military platforms and capabilities is rising fast right across Asia. In the future, there will be a greater number of capable military powers in the region, potentially able to act alone or jointly with others, and to disrupt dominance by any single power, whether the US, China or another country. Current perceptions that the main dynamic is China’s rising capabilities outstripping others in the region therefore need to be tempered.

In the economic arena, China will clearly retain the largest aggregate GDP in the region, though fall short of the richest in per capita terms. But the potential in other parts of Asia is strong too: India is close to surpassing China’s rate of growth and will overtake China in population in the next decade.

Indeed, the demography of Asia is another reason to look beyond the US-China nexus. China is facing demographic challenges of an aging society, while India, with its relatively youthful population, has some decades of demographic dividend ahead of it. And populations across much of southeast Asia are growing.

Neither does a simple focus on US-China reflect the complex networks of political relationships developing across the region. One consequence of these networks is that the US ‘hub and spokes’ model is open to change, and may come to resemble something more like a ‘spider’s web’. Japan and India in particular are building and participating in more regional and informal groupings. And China's relative weakness in developing regional partnerships should reduce strategic concerns in Washington.

Four trends

Looking forward, four major trends will characterise power distribution across the Asia-Pacific: the pace of change will increase along with its volatility, power will become more diverse and diffuse, the region is becoming more complex and unpredictable, and at the same time interdependence is growing, heightening the need for improved regional governance.

In such an environment, there will not be one or two dominant powers in the Asia-Pacific, but many influential actors, respectively collaborating on different issues of concern.

These trends mean that, in order to succeed, governments are going to have to become more flexible and adaptable. Those that succeed are likely to be the states which diversify their policy-making toolboxes – balancing investment in military capabilities with investment in other sources of influence and opening up government to new partnerships with the private sector and civil society.

Both the US and China need to evolve to respond to this more complex and less polar future. Rather than obsessing about each other's strategic intentions, Washington and Beijing should take the lead in devising flexible and inclusive approaches. This will be helpful not just for the US and China, but for the other regional players who find themselves impacted by Sino-US strategic tension, but sometimes with limited ability to influence the agenda.

This article was originally published in the FT Chinese.

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