The countries of the Asia-Pacific region are motivated to join forces with Washington on the issue of containing China, not because they share democratic values, but because they are concerned about the strengthening of China’s military and economic power amid unresolved territorial disputes and Beijing’s assertiveness in promoting China’s interests and narrative in the region, writes Valdai Club expert Yana Leksyutina.
Conflict, as a defining feature of modern Sino-American relations, is by no means a phenomenon that spontaneously arose as a result of Donald Trump’s policies specifically, and isn’t a temporary trend in world politics. The conditions and factors which have yielded the conflict in relations between the US and China accrued over decades, especially in 2009-2011. They gained critical mass, giving impetus to a radical revision of American policy towards China. The change in Washington’s approaches to China was already evident at the very beginning of Obama’s first term, when a “return to Asia” was announced, relations between the two countries in the Asia-Pacific region assumed a competitive character, and a policy with predominant elements of deterrence began to be implemented regarding China. The containment policy was finally shaped by the Trump administration, which initiated a trade and technological war against China as well as a decoupling process, and postulated in American doctrinal documents the vision of China as a revisionist power that poses a real challenge to the United States. Modern China has come to be perceived in Washington as the only rival of the US, combining economic, diplomatic, military and technological power capable of challenging the US and the international system.
In the context of the task of maintaining its world leadership amid the developing rivalry with China, the Asia-Pacific region (or, in American terminology, the Indo-Pacific region) is a priority for Washington. Washington assumes that, in view of the shift in the centre of gravity of the world economy and politics in the Asia-Pacific region, the future of world leadership is determined by which state will exercise leadership in this region. The priority of the Asia-Pacific region for Washington in the context of rivalry with China is also due to the concentration there of all China’s “core interests” and “pain points”, the manipulation of which allows Washington to implement a policy of containing a growing rival. As a result, the Asia-Pacific region is becoming a region, primarily affected by conflict and rivalry in Sino-American relations.
The intensification of Chinese-American rivalry contributes to the complication of regional security: the region is militarised and an arms race is taking place, military exercises and manoeuvres are intensifying in the region, and dangerous incidents of brinkmanship between warships and the coast guard ships of different countries are systematically occurring in disputed waters. Based on perceptions of growing security challenges and threats, the states of the region are building up their military capabilities, entering into new bilateral and multilateral security partnerships, trying to adapt their security policies to the new conditions of a rising China, and strategic great power competition. At the same time, new military-political partnerships are being formed; not only around and with the decisive role of the United States (such as QUAD or AUKUS), but also between the countries of the region. For example, since 2016, a security partnership between Singapore and Australia has been functioning, and in January 2022 they signed the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), aimed at strengthening cooperation between the two countries in the field of defence and security.
The countries of Southeast Asia fear a possible side effect of Sino-American rivalry, such as the erosion of the central role of ASEAN in the regional architecture of the Asia-Pacific region. Until recently, regional processes have predominantly developed around ASEAN, and ASEAN-centric institutions have served as the main platforms to discuss the economic and political development of the region and regional security: the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum on Security, the Meeting of Defence Ministers of ASEAN Member States and Dialogue Partners, ASEAN +1, ASEAN+3, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). However, in the past few years, one after another, with the decisive role of Washington, new multilateral alliances have begun to appear that can have a serious impact on the regional security architecture and economic system — QUAD, AUKUS, and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Guided by the goals of seizing the strategic initiative in the region from Beijing and hedging the risks emanating from a rising China, Washington is forming these new associations, which have the adverse effect of blurring “ASEAN centrality”.
In general, in strengthening its position in the region and containing China’s regional influence, the Biden administration pays fundamental attention to strengthening the system of allied relations and attracting allies to take collective action to contain China. The focus on strengthening the system of allied relations in the region, first adopted by Obama in 2009, has been further developed under Biden: Washington is not only strengthening its traditional allied relations with the countries of the region (Japan, Australia, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines) and partnerships with Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, but also contributes to the active involvement of its NATO allies in the Asia-Pacific region and the containment of China. The manifestation of this course was the formation of the trilateral security partnership AUKUS with the participation of the United States, Australia and Britain, the initiative to expand the Five Eyes intelligence alliance by including a number of Asian countries (South Korea, Japan and India) or, for example, the involvement of NATO allies in a joint passage of military ships through the Taiwan Strait. The past few years have been marked by the intensification of the participation of America’s NATO allies —Britain, France, Germany, Canada — in the security of the Asia-Pacific region. For example, in the form of conducting “operations in support of freedom of navigation” in the disputed waters of the South China and East China Seas, port visits by military ships to the Asia-Pacific countries or participation in joint military exercises in the region.
An important component of Washington’s policy is that the democratic agenda is placed as the basis for the general rallying of the “collective West” against undemocratic China. Washington, in fact, calls for the unification of countries on the basis of Western liberal democratic values shared by them. Hence the idea put forward by Biden during the presidential election campaign of creating a Coalition of Democracies and the initiative to hold Summits of Democracies. Hence the restrictive economic measures taken by the United States and supported by some of its partners against Beijing in connection with accusations of human rights violations in Xinjiang and “reducing the level of autonomy” of Hong Kong. Washington’s ideas about who it considers candidates among the Asia-Pacific countries for participation in the coalition to contain China are indirectly clear from the list of invitees to the Summit of Democracies held in December 2021. It included Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan.
It should be pointed out, however, that the democratic agenda can hardly be considered a universal tool in Washington’s arsenal to form a coalition to contain China. It is effective in relation to NATO allies, but not instrumental in the case of Asian partners. Southeast Asia, which occupies a significant part of the Asia-Pacific region, is still widely represented by undemocratic regimes. In some democratic countries of the Asia-Pacific region, as follows from Washington’s own assessments as well as those of international human rights organisations, a weakening of democratic institutions or human rights violations has been observed (in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, India). Unlike most US NATO allies, Asian governments, including democratic ones, are generally not inclined to place democratic values at the forefront of their diplomacy (with the rare exception of Taiwan, for which the commitment to democracy is seen as a kind of guarantor of its own security). Instead, they are guided by strategic interests and the need to ensure their own security.
The countries of the Asia-Pacific region are motivated to join forces with Washington on the issue of containing China, not because they share democratic values, but because they are concerned about the strengthening of China’s military and economic power amid unresolved territorial disputes and Beijing’s assertiveness in promoting China’s interests and narrative in the region. For example, Australia, Japan, and India, which previously adhered to the line of managed pragmatism in developing cooperation with China, have sharply tightened their policy towards China in the past two years; they have begun economic decoupling from China, and even turned to the implementation of specific measures to counter it. The rise of China, the growth of its foreign policy assertiveness, and its widespread practice of exerting economic pressure — not only on developing, but also on developed countries — have contributed to the deepening of the fears and discontent of the countries of the region and have become strong arguments in favour of policy reassessments regarding China and solidarity with Washington.
At the same time, most of the small and medium-sized countries of the region still do not want to make a mutually exclusive choice between the US and China and be drawn into the Sino-American rivalry. They seek to diversify their foreign ties and security partners, maintain neutrality in the Sino-American confrontation and retain their strategic autonomy. Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Mongolia belong to this group of countries that still maintain a strategic equidistance from the United States and China. These countries are also interested in developing trade and economic relations both with the United States, which remains their major trading partner, investor and donor of economic and other assistance, and with China, which has a huge consumer market located at the centre of regional and global value chains, and promises loans and investments, as well as assistance in their infrastructural development.
It is important to note that at the current stage in promoting the infrastructural development of the Asia-Pacific countries — a critical task for the region — China is significantly ahead of the United States, and in this regard, the importance of China for the developing countries of the region is high. At the same time, however, despite the huge volumes of trade with China and Beijing’s assistance in their infrastructural development, assistance in overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic, etc., many developing countries in the region share fears about the strengthening of China and falling prey to economic dependence on it. Moreover, in some countries — in particular, in Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mongolia — anti-Chinese sentiments are strongly developed among the population, which at a certain point can be reflected in the state’s political line.
Finally, there is a small group of poor countries in the region (Cambodia and Laos) that are heavily dependent on Chinese economic aid, investment, and various economic preferences. These countries seem to have already made their choice, becoming the conductors of Chinese interests in the region and in various ASEAN venues. Washington, which regularly emphasises that it does not force the countries of the Asia-Pacific region to choose one of the sides of the Sino-American confrontation, has already begun to openly put pressure on China’s “friends”. For example, on December 8, 2021, the United States imposed an arms embargo and restrictions on exports to Cambodia due to the growing influence of Chinese military forces in that country.
In this regard, as rivalry intensifies and conflict between the United States and China deepens, maintaining strategic autonomy and equal distance from the opposing great powers will become an increasingly difficult task for the Asia-Pacific countries. As for the allies and security partners of the United States, the latest round of the Ukrainian crisis has shown the bloc nature of their foreign policy behaviour and their readiness to blindly follow the guidelines dictated by Washington. Asia-Pacific countries such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Singapore are located at a great distance from Europe and do not have any significant interests in Ukraine and the Ukrainian knot of contradictions, and some of them recently showed great interest in deepening cooperation with Russia. However, they still joined in implementing the anti-Russia sanctions. Such bloc thinking is likely to manifest itself in a hypothetical conflict situation between Washington and Beijing. As for the rest of the countries in the region, which still retain strategic autonomy, if they are forced to choose between the US and China, they will most likely prefer Washington in its conflict with China. Except, perhaps, only Cambodia, Laos and North Korea, which have already made their strategic choice.