In Brewing Strategic U.S.-China Competition in Asia, the United States can get by with a Little Help from its Friends
For the past ten years or so, officials from China and the United States have carefully avoided the moniker ‘rivalry’ to describe their relationship. Nevertheless, the two nations have been engaging in increasingly high stakes competitions in many arenas, notably for influence in the Asia-Pacific region. This was on full display at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. China Minister of Defense Wei Fenghe warned against outside countries interfering in China’s affairs, and United States acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan reaffirmed the United States’ intention to maintain its strategic position in what Washington now officially calls the “Indo-Pacific.”
In this thinly veiled adversarial posture, some point to figures that seem to indicate an advantage for Beijing, notably its commercial dominance in the region and rapidly developing military capabilities, not to mention US President Donald Trump’s aversion to multilateralism. One number, however, receives less attention but is a major factor explaining why in the burgeoning competition for dominance in East Asia, China still trails far behind the United States and may never truly overtake it: one, the number of China’s formal allies.
The United States’ constellation of alliances and defense agreements have provided partner nations with Washington-backed collective security guarantees, allowing them to devote more resources to developing their economies and participate in the rules-based international trade network. It is largely through partnerships grounded in these values the United States has been able to maintain the so-called ‘Liberal World Order’ since the end of World War II. In the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. has collective defense agreements with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and New Zealand. It is deepening defense ties with Singapore and India, and even building security relations with Vietnam. China’s lone treaty ally? North Korea, the region’s poorest country.
These formal and informal partnerships are the United States’ best assets for maintaining defensive influence in China’s backyard. Even as Washington’s economic clout erodes and the uncertainties surrounding the Trump administration mount, military ties between Washington and its partners in the region run deep. Allied nations collaborate with the United States on efforts such as monitoring illicit activities from North Korea and defying China’s claims over the South China Sea.
Beijing’s lack of military friends is a large obstacle on its path to dominance in the region, and cannot be overcome with trade and investment alone. Without allies, China struggles to form effective coalitions to advance its agenda on the world stage. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s multi-continental development megaproject, does not guarantee Beijing preeminent influence in patron countries because countries prioritize security concerns, sometimes at the expense of economic opportunity.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which carefully tracks global arms sales, a bellwether for nations’ defense priorities, notes that though China has greatly increased its arms exports, client nations are mostly in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Australia, India, South Korea, and Vietnam, four of the world’s top weapons importers, per policy will not purchase Chinese-made arms. Conversely, five of the United States’ top arms clients by volume of export are in the region (2. Australia, 4. South Korea, 6. Japan, 7. Singapore, 10.Taiwan).
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte boisterously stated his intent to move closer to Beijing’s orbit when he came to office in 2016. Over the past three years, however, the Philippines has maintained productive military relations with the United States, an ally since 1951. Now, as tensions rise in the South China Sea, Manila has criticized Beijing and is even reportedly in discussion with Washington about deploying an American-made rocket system.
This has parallels with another issue involving a different US ally in the neighborhood. In 2016-2017, South Korea installed a controversial American-made missile defense system. China took swift vengeance, and the ensuing sanctions against Seoul resulted in an estimated loss of nearly $16 billion for South Korea. In the end, though, South Korea held firm and China relented. The system still stands and Beijing has mended ruptured economic ties.
China’s heavy-handed measures provide plenty of evidence in the United States’ case to keep allies and non-allies alike on its side. According to research firm Pew Global, in terms of world leadership, countries favor the United States over China by a large margin. The survey notes this trend is particularly acute in the Asia Pacific region.
With that said, the United States also has a responsibility to lead with the values it unabashedly promotes. It would be foolish to count on the automatic loyalty of allied nations seeking an alternative to the bully in Beijing. This means refraining from publicly humiliating, price gouging or threatening its partners. It also means setting an example at home, such as not invoking race-based grounds for confronting China. Even if America’s friends do not defect from the United States’ security guarantees, it is in Washington’s best interests to strengthen these bonds in order to maximize its advantage over Beijing.
In the coming years, competition for regional influence between China and the United States will increase in scope. Though China may be closing the gap in many measures as it continues its march towards super power status, in times of need, the majority of leaders in the Asia-Pacific still dial Washington. Until Beijing can offer neighboring countries peace of mind in security on top of the favorable trade deals, the Pacific Century will belong to the United States and its friends.
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