Beyond one-power hegemony: Asia seeks a new model
When they met in California at the weekend, Chinese President Xi Jinping and United States President Barack Obama discussed a long list of disputes, from trade to climate change to cyber hacking. Both were anxious to get along and only small steps forward will directly result from the meeting.
The key deliverable for the first US-China summit, early in Mr Obama’s second term and as President Xi starts an expected decade in power, is rapport.
The unresolved question of their relations in the Asia-Pacific hovered in the background. Mr Xi touched on this by saying “the vast Pacific Ocean has enough space” for both countries. Underlying this was Chinese resentment about the US “pivot”, or rebalancing of military and diplomatic assets, to Asia.
Many in Beijing see the move as a thinly disguised attempt to encircle and deny China space in the region. Addressing the fundamental issue of accommodating a rising China must await another occasion. Timing indeed may prove critical.
At present, Asian nations like the Philippines and Vietnam have welcomed the US move because China has grown more assertive recently about its claims over the resource-rich South China Sea. Similarly, tensions over disputed islands further north have prompted Japan to embrace its alliance with America and move to bolster its own defence capabilities.
It’s easy to forget how recent many of these tensions are. The arguments simmered but remained in abeyance for decades. From the mid-1990s and into the early 2000s, China successfully reached out to the nations of South-east Asia and collaborated with them on infrastructure, finance and a free trade agreement.
Even Tokyo made efforts to get on with China then. The first time he was in office, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to improve ties with Beijing and so did the opposition Democratic Party of Japan when it came to power. Japanese leaders recognised the deep economic interdependence that binds the region’s two largest economies.
For the decade after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, relations between China and most of its neighbours grew stronger and deeper — largely without American involvement. The current tensions among Asians may be the deviation, rather than the norm.
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