It’s impossible not to notice that Asian countries outside China are stuck in a precarious position, torn between their cooperation with the United States and the undeniable economic power of Beijing. Their allegiance will ultimately decide the outcome of this growing Cold War between the U.S. and China, and it is their choices that will mute tensions.
The capture of an alleged Chinese spy balloon by the U.S. military last month, followed by the abrupt cancellation of Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s visit to China, highlights just how challenging it will be to mend the broken ties between these two global giants. Tragically, though, it’s the other Asian countries that will both bear the brunt of this ongoing rivalry and manage its severity.
The United States has been focusing its foreign policy on Japan, South Korea and India for more than a decade in its attempt to maintain a dominant position globally. It’s also there that China wants to achieve regional hegemony — with a clear desire to once again be the “country at the center” that dominated Asian geopolitics for centuries.
The countries of the Asian continent don’t want relations between the United States and China to continue down this path. After all, the major powers in the region are either allies of — or are tightening their security ties with — the United States. What’s more, many of them have their own territorial problems with China and fear the country’s increasing military spending. As a result, South Korea, the Philippines, India, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam have sided with the United States on security issues.
The United States is not forcing cooperation with the countries of the Asian continent in this regard. These countries see the merits of walking hand in hand with Washington to maintain a balance of power against Beijing in the region.
At the same time, Asian countries understand that China has been, and will continue to be, a pivotal piece of the regional and global geopolitical chessboard. It’s also one of the largest trading and financial partners of most Asian countries. For this reason, the governments in the region can’t afford to break diplomatic and economic ties with Beijing entirely. They know that China’s power will only increase, so they have to live with it.
This reality is complicated by the decision of the United States not to sign any regional trade agreement after Donald J. Trump left the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement the same day he was inaugurated in 2017. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework promoted by President Joe Biden doesn’t include new concessions regarding access to the U.S. market — and there’s simply no substitute for the meaty Chinese market.
As a result, these nations must first take the initiative to rebuild economic connections with China and openly demonstrate their commitment to doing so. If China chooses to reject these attempts, it will only harm itself in the long run, but these efforts will at least avoid alienating China by isolating or surrounding it.
Next, these countries must take leadership in brokering solutions. Neither the United States nor China wants to extend the olive branch first for posturing reasons, but one primary method of accomplishing this is to strengthen spaces for dialogue between the two powers. Good starting points are the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum or the Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus.
Another similar solution would be for countries to keep sending messages to the United States that Asia is in no position to isolate China and that there is no competition between democracies and dictatorships in the region. China should continue to be made aware of the fact that its actions are merely escalating regional tensions — leading numerous Asian governments to cooperate more closely with the United States.
After all, the decades of economic growth throughout Asia were largely the result of a climate of peace and cooperation. This has committed many countries in Asia to focus on policies designed to increase their exports and attract greater investment flows. The leaders of these countries and their business elites haven’t given up on the view that their continent’s recent prosperous past can’t also be its future.
Time will tell if Asian countries can prevent this new Cold War between Washington and Beijing from continuing to heat up on their continent — but as far as I see it, they haven’t yet succeeded.