Photo: Jacob Parakilas/Chatham House.Photo: Jacob Parakilas/Chatham House.

Seeing geo-strategic rivalry between the US and China as the sole variable in Asia-Pacific security risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to a forthcoming Chatham House paper.            

As Xi Jinping’s visit to the US approaches, The Asia-Pacific Power Balance: Beyond the US–China Narrative, warns against deploying Cold War-type narratives that pit the two countries against each other. Such narratives not only misunderstand the complexity of the region and the growing influence of India, Japan and Indonesia, but also risk increasing the likelihood of conflict and of missing vital opportunities for future cooperation.                

The paper, by John Nilsson-Wright, Tim Summers and Xenia Wickett argues that by focusing too heavily on the US and China, policymakers risk narrowing the aperture through which they evaluate policy choices regarding major regional challenges. Some of the key findings include the following:

Military

  • Despite rapidly rising defence spending across Asia, the relative importance of traditional military means is declining relative to instruments such as development assistance and cyber offence.
  • The militaries of Japan and India are becoming – in very different ways – more versatile and potentially expanding their remits. In the future, there will be a larger number of more capable military powers in the region, including South Korea and Vietnam.
  • Current perceptions that the main dynamic is China’s rising military capabilities outstripping others in the region, therefore, need to be tempered. India’s defence spending, for example, as a percentage of GDP has surpassed China’s for the past several decades.

Economics

  • Although China has the world’s second-largest economy and – despite recent problems – is growing faster than most major economies, its growth rate is in secular decline. China has gone from near-constant double-digit growth over the past four decades to 7.4 per cent in 2014 and could dip below 7 per cent this year.
  • Whilst India’s economy remains notably smaller than those of China, the US and Japan, it will surpass China’s growth rate this year and has a lot of potential.
  • If the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is successfully negotiated, the potential for integration and growth between the United States, Japan and the other 10 TPP members may reduce their current trade dependence on China.

Demography

  • The demography of Asia is another reason to look beyond the US-China nexus, as China faces the challenge of an aging society, while countries such as India have the advantage of a younger population and decades of demographic dividend ahead of them.
  • Likewise populations across much of Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines and Indonesia are growing rapidly and expanding their middle classes. 

Editor's notes: 

Read the report The Asia-Pacific Power Balance: Beyond the US–China Narrative from Chatham House.

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