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The Stakes at the East Asia Summit

John Lee

In Asia today, the source of America’s strategic pre-eminence is not just the dominance of the Seventh Fleet but strong regional support for a continued U.S. presence. Since the 1990s, Beijing’s grand strategy in Asia has been to avoid confrontation with the world’s sole superpower while at the same time weakening the regional appetite for the American role in the region. This is why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presence at the East Asia Summit in Hanoi this week—and the anticipated invitation for the U.S. to become a permanent member—represents a boon for America and a significant failure for Chinese foreign policy.

China has long viewed American pre-eminence in the region as a historical accident and an aberration. Yet despite the triumphalism of its state-owned newspapers and confidence of Chinese bloggers, Beijing also believes that U.S. economic and military dominance will persist well into the foreseeable future. The Communist Party feels enormously uncomfortable about a regional order that is based not just on open trade, freedom of the seas and the rule of law, but also on a democratic community backed by American naval power and military alliances.

The vast majority of Chinese strategic documents penned over the past decade address how best to bind, dilute, circumvent or supersede American power and influence without provoking an aggressive response from Washington in return. This is difficult because the U.S. doesn’t exhibit the “soft underbelly” of many other developed Western countries in terms of preparedness to sacrifice blood and treasure in pursuit of its national interest. Instead, America’s vulnerability rests in its dependence on the continual acquiescence of regional allies and partners to maintain its forward position in the region.

Hence, Beijing has increasingly pursued an indirect strategy that attempts to weaken the enthusiasm of regional capitals when it comes to the future strategic role of a distant Western superpower in Asia. The idea is to gradually ease America out of the region.

This plan has several pillars. First, China seeks to exploit temporary “windows of opportunity”—rifts or drift in the bilateral relations between Asian states and Washington. For example, sensing potential atrophy in America’s relationship with the Philippines and Thailand, China has offered aid, military assistance and economic incentives over the past few years in an attempt to convince elites in these countries that future Chinese regional leadership will be preferable to American pre-eminence in the longer term. Likewise, Beijing is hoping that other economic inducements, such as its free-trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will eventually translate into political leverage and persuade these states to accept a more extensive strategic and military role for China in the future.

Second, Beijing has consistently promoted regional security concepts to potentially undermine or render obsolete the pre-existing U.S.-led hierarchical security structure. Examples include the “New Security Concept,” promoted at the turn of this century which seeks to “transcend” existing American bilateral alliances in favour of new regional multilateral security cooperation with all Asian nations, and especially existing American security allies and partners. Chinese policy makers also frequently talk to the “Asianization” of international relations in the region.

Third, Beijing has tapped into the regional fervor for the language of multilateralism to bind or, even better, exclude America. In this context, Beijing has attempted to use regional forums that do not include America, such as the Asean-plus-three meetings, to pick off or isolate smaller Asian countries one by one. It is no wonder that Secretary Clinton’s statement in July that Washington was willing to negotiate a settlement in the South China Sea amongst claimants was immediately met with outrage by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

These strategies are combined with a military program—especially submarines, antiship ballistic missiles, and network-denial and disruption technologies—that is not necessarily designed to defeat American forces in the foreseeable future but to make the costs of any American military intervention prohibitive. This is meant to buy time for China to build its comprehensive national power in Asia. The intended endgame: to gradually increase the incentives for regional states to accept Chinese pre-eminence, and to increase the pressure on America to eventually cede leadership of Asia to China without military conflict.

Which brings us back to the East Asia Summit this week in Hanoi. First conceived by Malaysia in 2004, the summit has enjoyed Beijing’s backing from the start because it could serve China’s ambition of creating an Asian-only institution (although it also includes India). Yet China’s overtly muscular diplomacy in the East China Sea, South China Sea and Yellow Sea in the past few months has increased the enthusiasm of key states such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore for an entrenched American strategic role in Asia. If these states accept Secretary Clinton’s suggestion that the East Asia Summit become the fundamental political and security institution in this “Asian Century,” then regional multilateralism could serve to bind Chinese ambitions rather than constrain American freedom of action in East Asia.

The future status of Asia’s multiple summits is still unclear. It is no wonder that Beijing is now rooting for Asean-plus-three, which does not include America, to be the primary problem-solving meeting. But if expected U.S. membership transforms the East Asia Summit into the region’s principal security institution, clumsy and impatient Chinese diplomacy will have contributed to the rise of a multilateralism that largely entrenches an extended U.S.-led network of security alliances and partnerships.

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