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Background Briefing: China, America & Asia Pacific Security

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all (Ecclesiastes 9:11)

The Asia-Pacific is undergoing a profound transition, triggered by its economic growth, and changing strategic relations.

  • The fundamental issue is the rise of China – a challenge for every country with an interest in the region, and also for the United States. The other major powers – Japan and China – increasingly fear China’s rise, as do the middle powers – South Korea, Australia and Indonesia.
  • Under President Xi, China has become increasingly assertive – a major challenge for the region and for the US, which remains the crucial agent for peace.

For the US, it requires neither bombastic belligerence nor acquiescence, but a careful mixture of power balancing and prudent hedging.

  • The US ‘pivot’ to Asia, driven by Secretary Clinton, and announced by President Obama in 2012, reflected US insight into the vital importance of the ongoing strategic rebalancing in the region.

Until late 2012, when Xi Jinping became leader, China for the most part played a constructive role in the region’s security. It aspired to an increasing security role that was legitimate in the light of its rapid economic weight. It played that role responsibly, under the slogan of a ‘peaceful rise’.

  • Under Xi, China has become increasingly assertive; it has abandoned the three-part formula for balancing politics, economics and international security that drove its rise over the previous 30 years.
  • The good news is that conflict with China is not inevitable. Nuclear deterrence and economic integration have both fundamentally altered the cost-benefit equation of major conflict – strongly increasing the costs and reducing the benefit.
  • But conflict short of major war between major powers remains a real prospect, a prospect that has grown under President Xi.
  • The greatest risks are in the South and East China seas; managing Taiwan-China relations remains a challenge; and North Korea's increasing belligerence greatly complicates  an already tense relationship between the great powers of the Asia Pacific region.

Xi has been driven by his own kind of populist nationalism, not so different from the populist nationalism infecting other countries in the West and in Asia – seen for example in Brexit, in the US Republican primaries, in the growth of the racist right in Europe, and in the growing nationalist strain in Japanese and Indian politics.

Under Xi, China has leant increasingly on populist nationalism to drive public support for continued Communist Party rule.

  • Some of the drivers of this populist nationalism are seen in varying degrees in different countries. In the West these include the decline of liberal ideology (in the English sense); weakening commitment to protecting minority interests; flat economic growth and stagnation in middle incomes driving growing inequality.
  • Technology has also been a factor driving populist nationalism in both West and East.
  •      The internet revolution has weakened the moderating influence of the mass media. Gone are the days when newspapers were an influential, moderate voice that shaped national debate.
  •      Instead the segmented, shrill echo chamber of social media has become the main vehicle for public engagement in political discourse.

Tension between the US and China in the Asia Pacific is likely to increase, unless a both the US and China find a face saving de-escalation mechanism. This is unlikely before the US Presidential election in November 2016.

  • China (a rising power) is likely to team up with Russia (a declining but belligerent power) to confront American interests in the Asia Pacific region.
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