An Asian Perspective on “The Asian Century: What it means to the United States”

By CSPS-Korea

The CSPS Conference on “The Asian Century: What it means to the United States” invites renowned scholars and practitioners to address an important and timely topic. Articulating the United States’ view on the rise of China, the speakers concurrently point to two apparent trends: China is expanding its regional influence in Asia and the United States considers it as a challenge rather than an opportunity. Emerging Chinese power, based on its rapid economic ascent, indicates an imminent change to the existing international order that might directly affect the U.S. position and influence in the Asian region.

Moreover, China’s non-democratic system with strengthened authoritarian rule by Xi Jinping poses a more significant threat to US influence in Asia for three reasons. Firstly, China exerts soft power to spread its own Chinese-style model of development in Asia. Secondly, China became more assertive and aggressive in retrieving its revisionist power. Thirdly, China is present in every security hotspot in Asia including Taiwan Straits, China-India Border, South China Sea, Southeast Asia, and the Korean Peninsula. From the U.S. perspective, a peaceful rise of China may be seen as wishful thinking.

CSPS Korea’s post-conference discussion aims to offer an Asian perspective on China’s rise and U.S. policy on three major areas of debate.

Our first debate was about the inflated threat of China’s rise. We propose that the U.S. is not threatened by China’s rise, but rather disturbed by the assertiveness and China’s confidence on the ascent to the global or regional leader. For decades, China concentrated on its internal development by maintaining ‘low profile’ in international affairs. At that time, the U.S. was not bothered by China’s growth. It was when President Xi began to accentuate PRC’s role as a “responsible great power”[1] and “strong power”, US perceived China as a threat. While we admit that China will have a substantial impact on the global structure and operation of politics and economy, we still question China’s role as a responsible superpower.

Our second debate was about how long and how far China can sustain its race to the top. Beijing’s increasing dissatisfaction with the current international order and attempt to take appropriate roles and status may be seen as a challenge by Washington. However, Asians still question the prospect of the Chinese system on its sustainability to change the existing international order and its viability as an alternative to other systems of development. The intent and attractiveness of Chinese soft power and public diplomacy have been questioned as well.

Lastly, we discussed about China’s capacity to become a global hegemon. Global hegemony infers state’s capability to create and maintain international order in cooperation with its allies using various means including diplomacy, coercion, and the use of force. China may have revisionist aims in the Asia Pacific region, but willingness and capability are two different things. China still has significant weaknesses including political and social instability, lack of true military allies, institutional constraints created by established power, and demographic challenges. Ultimately, we doubt that capability and resources of China would be a match to that of the United States to overturn US hegemony.

However, variables that may alternate future balance of power between the United States and China still exist. We carefully speculate that U.S trade deficits owed to China and Trump Administration’s ‘America First’ policies and declaration to withdraw from international institutions and agreements such as the Paris Agreement, UNESCO, and UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) can alter the status quo.

Even if China is rising as a potential superpower in Asia, the actual process of achieving regional hegemony will be time-consuming and costly. China’s involvement in many regional disputes – the Taiwan Straits, China-India Border, South China Sea, Southeast Asia, and the Korean Peninsula – is inhibiting China from gaining support and recognition from other Asian countries as a representative state. Therefore, China may just deplete its resources and time without becoming a regional hegemon.

According to a news article published by South China Morning Post, a poll conducted by Pew Research Centre reveals that 73% of the respondents from South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia showed skepticism on the Chinese leadership in the international system. Instead, they preferred the United States to be a global power. Also, only 12% of them believed that China can actually outrun U.S. Even when the survey was expanded to 25 countries, only 19% selected China as the potential global leader.[2]

Currently, we are undergoing a critical transitional period between the US-dominated system and China’s ascent. However, the question should not be on whether it will be peaceful or conflictual. Rather, it should focus on why power transition is happening. Is it because we are discontent with the present international rules and orders, or is it because of the decline of US economic or international leadership? The policy options for Washington depends very much on the answers to these questions. The lessons and implications drawn from the discussions at the CSPS conference certainly offer a guiding light in this endeavor.

 

[1] President’s report to the 19th National Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October 2017. Tim Ruhlig, “A New China’s foreign policy under Xi Jing Ping”, Focus Asia, March 2, 2018.

[2] Robert Delaney, “United States or China as World Leader? Asians Overwhelmingly Prefer the US, Pew Study Finds,” South China Morning Post, October 13, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2168399/united-states-or-china-world-leader-asians-overwhelmingly.