August 2021

To Compete Successfully With China, America Can’t Take the Rest of Asia for Granted | Byline article by Robert Hormats

As the Biden administration crafts its China strategy, it is looking at Asia through a broader prism than just its relations with one country. It is, after all, not just China that is a rising power in that region. To be sure, it obviously is the biggest and most powerful one; and it will likely continue to strengthen economically, technologically, and militarily for a long time. But other powers are rising in Asia, too. President Xi articulated a view held not only by China but also by other nations in the region when he recently said, “the East is rising and the West is declining.”

I am reluctant to succumb to the temptation to describe the world with a bifurcated narrative—or as a zero-sum game. I am more inclined to the view that history demonstrates that growth can be a positive sum game. And I think that history bears out the notion that growth in one area can boost that in another. But I do think it is imperative for us to digest the multitude of profound implications of an impressively fast-growing East—not only China—in forging an American foreign-policy strategy for the decade ahead and beyond. The challenge this situation poses to us is both to strengthen ties with like-minded friends and allies for our mutual benefit and to reinforce common values. It is also to bolster our technological strength and the effectiveness of our democratic, market-driven system in addressing a host of domestic challenges ranging from curbing covid, to reducing racial and economic inequities, to narrowing toxic partisan differences.

The Biden administration’s strategy is, for the moment at least, in many ways closer in substance to that of the Trump administration than the Obama administration, although with less harsh rhetoric and with initiatives to try to reduce significantly at least a few of the most visible tensions and clarify the depth and nature of some of the central differences. President Biden’s team includes a number of highly experienced China and Asia experts who will be a great asset in establishing a forward-looking policy strategy.

This administration’s most notable change has been engaging with America’s friends and allies in Asia and Europe more constructively on China, rather than targeting them also for often severe and unpredictable trade measures. Bringing them into the policy mix not only moderates the narrative that the U.S. is the only country displeased with certain Chinese policies and that disputes with Beijing are purely bilateral, but it also improves chances that China will make at least some changes sought by the group in an environment in which it does not appear to be yielding exclusively to American pressure. At the same time, it emphasizes a note of realism that containment of China is not a viable option. Few if any of these countries, for which China is a large (often the largest) trading partner, will support either containment or wholesale decoupling.

The U.S. cannot succeed in making progress with China if it is in a state of sustained friction (as it was during the previous administration) with other countries in the region, and many in Europe as well, on trade and other matters—with relations peppered by statements that raise doubts about our alliance relationships. Nor can it display unpredictability, such as withdrawing abruptly from a major trans-Pacific trade agreement and the Paris climate accord. An unreliable America is not one other Asian nations feel comfortable working with.

Other nations also have issues with China. Many want to consult with the U.S. on how to resolve them in a way that also meets their interests as well as America’s – and they are not always the same. While many want to know they would have American political and security support in a crisis, virtually all want to seek ways of avoiding a crisis in the first place. A 2019 study of ASEAN nations, for example, was entitled, “Don’t Make Us Choose.” The U.S. needs far closer and more consistent collaboration with these regional countries to show that it is a reliable and consistent ally and friend. But Washington also needs to understand how difficult it is for many of these nations on both a geopolitical and geoeconomic level to deal with the question of how to position themselves between China and the U.S.—a difficult task when Beijing and Washington are now so deeply suspicious of one another. Nonetheless, a mutually constructive strategy must be pursued.

In designing its strategy, Washington cannot take its ability to shape policy of other regional nations for granted. In many of these countries, globalization has threatened peoples’ sense of identity vis-a-vis other nations—and among communities or ethnic groups or regions within them. To offset the prospects of more division within these countries, many leaders have turned to nationalism and nativism to preserve their own political strength and solidify national unity. This complicates U.S. relationships with some.

Many nations in China’s neighborhood have primarily four underlying concerns. First, to what extent will they be able to boost their economies by being able to trade more and enjoy good overall investment and other economic relations with both China and the U.S.? Second, how will China affect their security in coming years, and to what extent can they count on the U.S. to support them if needed, without getting drawn into a China-U.S. confrontation? Third, can both China and the U.S. embark on a course that veers away from a zero-sum contest and move toward positive-sum understandings on, for instance, maritime or cyber-related issues? Fourth, can other countries avoid being put in the middle of destabilizing and divisive disputes between these superpowers?

From the U.S. in particular, these countries are looking for long-term policy and strategic reliability. Many want to see a strengthening of the Quad (the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India) but don’t see it as a replication of NATO in the Pacific. In this vein they are heartened by recent visits to India by Secretaries Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin. They would like to see the U.S. rejoin or at least work very closely with the TPP, now the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Most are pleased that Washington is working through high-level visits and other means to build closer ties with ASEAN, which in past years has received what many in the region believe to be too little high-level attention, from Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

And when it comes to China, Washington must recognize what virtually all nations accept as a fundamental reality. We are competing not simply with today’s China, challenging as it is, or the increasingly powerful Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping. We are dealing with a 4,000-year-old civilization with a deep history, a history that has a powerful influence on its policies, system, and outlook to the world and is characterized also by aversion to being subject to foreign influence on its domestic society and system.

Two recent examples of the influence of this history on contemporary policies are the drive to be self-sufficient in a wide range of new technologies and the efforts China is making to develop a digital yuan so that it cannot be subject to American leverage through the use of dollar-related sanctions. China’s leaders are proud of what their country has accomplished in recent decades to raise hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and into middle-class status or above and to achieve remarkable economic and technological progress. They now feel entitled to, and insist on, a level of respect and a voice in the world consistent with the accomplishments of the nation’s history and its recent progress.

If we in the U.S. are to compete successfully with China, demonstrate the effectiveness of our democratic, free market system, sustain our global leadership role, and be seen as credible and effective, we need to considerably strengthen our technological and overall economic competitiveness, substantially improve domestic social and racial equity and dramatically improve infrastructure at home, not just over the next couple of years, but also for future decades. . And our country cannot pursue an erratic and on occasion highly partisan and often inconsistent approach — one that switches on and off every 2, 4 or 6 years — and is riddled by social and political division and fragmentation depending on the most recent election. That will undermine any constructive strategy we have or seek with China and damage American reliability among friends and allies in the region. If we fail to understand this, we will be seen as a country that not only fails to understand and work effectively with China, but is also unable to effectively pursue its own interests throughout the region.

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This article was originally published on August 19, 2021 by Barron's.

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