Chinese perceptions of the US role in Asia

Chinese perceptions of the US role in Asia

China must exert and strengthen its sphere of influence in Asia to win against the United States on the battlefield of a complex and changing geopolitical landscape, and ally with Asean states to maintain Beijing's status quo.

Amid growing US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region, we have witnessed a political tendency of some Asean member states to take sides by signing on to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Initiative as a counterweight to the Chinese-initiated Belt and Road Initiative.

In the wake of the emerging US threat, China has been cautious in pursuing its core interests in the region, steadily deepening Beijing's ties with US allies.

In Asia, China's rising profile continues to undermine America's leading and dominating role in providing billions of dollars to developing countries including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

China has taken note of some negative examples from history in this regard. For example, the rising powers of Germany prior to World War I and Japan prior to World War II were the most dangerous players, and the encouraged their allies to work against other rising powers, which eventually led to intensified war. With this in mind, Chinese leaders acted to avoid such a damaging scenario as their country rose, seeing the rising profile of America in Asia as the main threat.

The nature of a future confrontation between Washington and Beijing is unpredictable, leading China to be wary of negative US reactions to its growing influence and power in Asia. Therefore, if China responds to the US without proper strategic considerations, its interests will be undermined.

For example, during the administration of President George W Bush, China was aware of America's complicated divisions, which resulted in allowing North Korea to conduct provocative actions in 2003 and making the 1994 US-North Korea Agreed Framework agreement vulnerable. Consequently, the government faced challenges during that period because of its unclear anticipation and abandonment of multilateral measures seen as critical to long-term Asian stability.

Another failure of the Bush administration was poor leadership in consolidating gains in small states. Following the US invasion of Iraq, China perceived that the US did not pay close attention to the root causes of terrorism and instead intervened to destroy one country without taking responsibility. More importantly, it held the United Nations in contempt and attempted to justify its unilateral dominance in other parts of the world.

The attack on Iraq on Muslim populations raised negative perceptions among Muslim countries in Southeast Asia, leading Indonesia and Malaysia criticise how resentment of US behaviour in Iraq and Afghanistan fuelled radical movements in the Middle East.

In addition to concerns in Iraq and other regions, the Bush administration was criticised for its handling of North Korea, where Chinese interests are at stake. Hence, China's belief is true that US primacy in Asia remains strong and is a more obvious concern than Iraq.

Despite some criticism of Mr Bush during the Iraq war, he also maintained and even improved good relations with most of the Asian powers, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, India and others.

These countries appreciate the US security commitment and military presence in the region to thwart the rise of China. For example, the magnitude of the deployment of US forces in South Korea has prompted China to increase its military capability.

Economically, Chinese leaders recognise that the US economy plays an important role in generating growth for its own development and that of Asia in general. America absorbs about 40% of Chinese exports, one-third of Japanese exports and about 20% of exports from South Korean, Taiwan and Asean.

Moreover, US foreign direct investment has increased significantly in China, but relatively less than in Japan, Singapore and Australia. In this sense, the growing military role of the United States in other parts of the world, since the 9/11 attacks, has became significant and pre-eminent, especially after the defeat of Japan in World War II and the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

As for the highly contested South China Sea, the claimant states are always tempted to bring in the presence of America, which China sees as a critical threat to its core interests in the surrounding areas. The prominence of the US in the region has compelled China to continuously make strategic calculations as it assesses the American role in the region.

For example, China always uses a policy of unilateral action to resolve maritime issues within those shared borders, or prefers Asean-led mechanisms to address and reject the influential role of the US in the region, even though the latter's presence is welcomed by some Asean members, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Meanwhile, Chinese funding has increased dramatically, providing its allies in Southeast Asia with the means to bolster a shield against US policy of strategic ambiguity.

It is important to put into perspective that US security policy in Asia has been an underlying cause of China's growing influence in the region. Washington justifies its actions by frequently telling Beijing that security, economic and human rights considerations are on America's checklist. China in turn is increasing its funding to recipient countries to counter Western influence.

The growing supremacy of the US has never prevented China from abandoning its continued economic ties with the non-American alliance in Asia and seizing this opportunity to strengthen Beijing's leadership and become the key economic player in Asia.

Vun Phanith is a JICA scholar at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. Originally from Cambodia, he is now living in Kyoto.

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