Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, is the author of “The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power.”
UPDATED AUGUST 23, 2016, 3:20 AM
For a long time China worked hard to reassure its Asian neighbors they had nothing to fear from its "peaceful rise." Now it is throwing all that away, as its bullying over issues like the South China Sea makes neighbors worry that China will use its growing strength to push them around.
That’s dumb if you think China’s aim is to make friends. But it might be smart if its aim is to undermine U.S. leadership in Asia and assert its own regional preponderance. That’s because China’s bullying tests America’s willingness to face down China on its friends’ and allies’ behalf. Beijing is gambling that Washington will talk tough but do nothing concrete that would risk a confrontation that might escalate into an open-ended conflict.
Bruised friendships with regional neighbors seem a small price to pay for regional hegemony.
This makes America look weak, eroding regional countries’ confidence in U.S. power and resolve. And in the zero-sum logic of power politics, that makes China look strong. By successfully defying America – especially at sea, where America has always been strongest – China thus promotes its claim on regional leadership under President Xi’s "new model of great power relations."
Bruised friendships with regional neighbors seem a small price to pay for that. And Beijing no doubt believes it can easily patch up relations when it needs to: even with a slowing economy it has a lot of carrots to offer.
Of course China might be underestimating its problem here. Perhaps its bullying worries other Asians so much that they are actually becoming more eager to support America in pushing back against China. Many in Washington seem to believe this.
Alas the evidence points the other way. No one in Asia wants to live under China’s shadow, so everyone wants America to stay in Asia to balance and limit China’s power. But no one in Asia – not even America’s closest ally, Australia – wants to sacrifice their relationships with China to support America in confronting Beijing, especially when U.S. resolve looks even weaker over issues like the TPP.
That means the balance in China’s diplomacy between carrots and sticks is so far working well for it. Acknowledging that would be the first step towards finding a more effective U.S. response.