China: Is ‘Asia for Asians’ security strategy working?

August 26, 2019 14:15
Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-26 ballistic missiles. While the United States now identifies China as the principal threat, it is unwilling to focus its shrinking resources on the Indo-Pacific. Photo: AFP

Five years ago, in May 2014, President Xi Jinping took the United States aback when, at a regional conference held in Shanghai, he proposed the idea of “Asia for Asians” where security matters were concerned.

Calling for new regional security architecture, the Chinese leader asserted: “It is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, to solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia. The people of Asia have the capability and wisdom to achieve peace and stability in the region through enhanced cooperation.”

President Xi made his proposal at a meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, or Cica. When word reached Washington, American officials couldn’t believe that the Chinese leader actually meant what he had said.

After all, from the US perspective, its network of bilateral military alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia provided the regional security architecture. Did Xi want to dismantle those alliances and throw the US out of Asia?

When President Barack Obama visited China six months later, Xi assured him that China had no intention to exclude the US from Asia.

Five years later, what is the situation?

On the surface, at least, not much seems changed. But earlier this month, a think tank at the University of Sydney released a study that said the US “no longer enjoys military primacy in the Indo-Pacific and its capacity to uphold a favorable balance of power is increasingly uncertain”.

The study, “Averting Crisis: American Strategy, Military Spending and Collective Defense in the Indo-Pacific,” issued by the university’s United States Study Center, concluded that the combined effect of the ongoing wars in the Middle East, budget austerity, underinvestment in advanced military capabilities and the scale of America’s liberal order-building agenda “has left the US armed forces ill-prepared for great power competition in the Indo-Pacific”. 

In fact, the study found, China could “quickly use limited force to achieve a fait accompli victory – particularly around Taiwan, the Japanese archipelago or maritime Southeast Asia before America can respond, sowing doubt about Washington’s security guarantees in the process”.

Actually, Washington is quite aware of its diminishing power. Last year, the US issued a National Defense Strategy, which acknowledged that it was “emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding”. Marking a shift in national security priorities, it declared: “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern of US national security.”

Then secretary of defense James Mattis said, “Our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare – air, land, sea, space and cyberspace – and it is continuing to erode.”

In congressional testimony the following month, Mattis said, "As hard as the last 16 years of war have been on our military, no enemy in the field has done as much to harm the readiness of US military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act's defense spending caps."

China and Russia, meanwhile, are strengthening their military partnership. The state-owned Global Times asserted in July, after China issued a white paper on defense, that Sino-Russian military ties “safeguard global security”.

While the US now identifies China as the principal threat, it is unwilling to focus its shrinking resources on the Indo-Pacific. Instead, the National Defense Strategy says that “concurrently, the Department will sustain its efforts to deter and counter rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, defeat terrorist threats to the United States, and consolidate our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan while moving to a more resource-sustainable approach”.

This stubborn insistence on being the global cop, dealing with crises in every corner of the world while refusing to prioritize dwindling resources for the principal threat, namely China, is increasingly viewed by others, including American allies, as a losing approach. As the Sydney University study put it, “The result is an increasingly worrying mismatch between US strategy and resources that jeopardizes the future stability of the Indo-Pacific region.”

The likely result is that Australia and like-minded countries will increasingly feel that they won’t be able to count on the US for their security and will have to look after themselves, perhaps in conjunction with other countries in the region, with the US playing a much smaller role.

And so, “Asia for Asians” may become a reality, simply because the US would effectively have squeezed itself out of the region by not keeping its own house in order, allowing partisan bickering to dominate foreign policy and failing to understand that years of budgetary constraints on defense have consequences in real life.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.