The East Asia Summit is about to be held, and is widely seen as a platform for America returning to Asia. The United States wants to lead the summit agenda and has a very strong desire to turn it into a symposium on the South China Sea. China strongly opposes this.
This is merely America’s most recent action in turning its attention back to Asia. This and the improving military alliance relationship between the United States, Australia and the Philippines are all eggs in a new strategic basket for America's return to Asia. This gives China a sense of oppression, which the entire world has seen or suspected. China will adopt several reciprocal measures, which are generally anticipated by world opinion.
Not letting the United States come to Asia to engage in “smart power” diplomacy directed against China is unrealistic. Letting China be perfectly happy accepting America’s overall arrangement, and letting Asian countries one after another become American allies guarding against China are both the same fantasy. The real uncertainty is who — China or the United States — can use more tools or resources against this kind of friction, as well as whether it will lead to an overall confrontation between China and the United States.
At least until now, the relationship between China and the United States hasn’t amounted to confrontation. The United States is still very limited in muzzling China investment. Most of America’s investment in Asia is now the concern of leaders. Whereas before it spoke out more, now America is paying frequent visits to Asia and is more encouraging of neighboring countries opposing China — these all are America’s newest uses of soft power on countries and are also the easiest to accomplish.
If it truly wants to build an anti-China alliance in Asia, America must have a significant investment of economic benefits. Namely, America needs to make its partner countries stand to gain even more than those who are not going along with the United States. In the long run, it’s not enough to sign an agreement that helps embolden those countries and only rely on the security talk that some of the South China Sea claimants love to hear.
The American economy is in a downturn, and, until now, a new impetus for future growth hasn’t been seen. The United States is strategically constraining China’s long-term needs and is using China to accelerate the practical needs of its economic recovery, frustratingly mixing these together when neither goal can completely overwhelm the other. It would be very difficult for the United States to resolve a strategic confrontation with China.
The strategic nature of Chinese-United States competition in Asia will, over the long term, result in a dim state of affairs; the controlling ability of China to maintain a standoff against America is increasing. On China’s periphery, it’s hard to say that America has superiority. The scale of economic cooperation between China and its neighbors is gradually overwhelming the United States. In the future, China ought to use economic cooperation to leverage the political attitudes of its neighbors. America’s pawns are turning their cooperation with America into the suppression and exclusion of China, and are allowing themselves to lose opportunities to profit from China’s economy. This will greatly reduce the attractiveness of accepting American security protection.
What “leading Asia” really means is controlling the direction of solving regional crises. The conflicts in the South China and East China seas are only a small part of East Asian affairs. America and a number of countries are using each other to stir themselves into the most pressing problems of East Asia, each of them reaping their own profits from China. Only when China invests its strength can it turn this kind of profit into unbearable suffering, making this the accompanying cost in one or two rounds of negotiation — only then is there hope of letting the disputing countries return to a cooperative attitude in talks with China on the sea issues.
China must make this kind of blocking move; if China gives up, some people in America will truly believe the United States can lead East Asia forever. It is not that China wants to lead East Asia by itself — China can’t. But China must hold talks between the United States, Japan and other countries to resolve East Asian affairs, forming a situation where there is no single leader in this region.
China should be filled with self-confidence that it has the capability to do this. Although China’s comprehensive strength is far smaller than the United States', China opposes America leading Asia in more transferable resources than it can use by implementing this leadership. As long as China is patient and persists, the survival mantra of China’s neighbors — “rely on China for the economy and rely on the United States for security” — can’t be maintained. The arrogance of America’s return to Asia will also fade away.