By: C. Raja Mohan and Rory Medcalf
When External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj sits down with Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi on Monday, a widely shared concern in Asia will be at the top of the agenda: How does one deal with an increasingly assertive China and the uncertain dynamic in Beijing’s relations with Washington?
During his visit to New Delhi earlier this month, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel declared, “India need not have to choose between [a] closer partnership with America and improved ties with China.” Hagel added, “In our relations with Beijing, both Delhi and Washington seek to manage competition, but avoid the traps of rivalry.”
Hagel was trying to dispel concerns in Delhi that drawing closer to America is likely to complicate India’s relations with China. Those concerns were seen as responsible for the UPA government’s decision to slow down defence cooperation with the United States.
As America warms up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, China is not sitting back. President Xi Jinping dispatched Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Delhi within days of Modi’s election, and hosted India’s vice president, Hamid Ansari, in Beijing. Xi also met Modi on the margins of the BRICS summit in Fortaleza in July. Modi will receive Xi in Delhi next month and head out to Washington soon after.
Modi is acutely aware that the rise of China is altering the power equation between Washington and Beijing and is testing the region’s inherited security frameworks — alliances, collective security and non-alignment.
Even America’s closest allies must be wondering if Washington will be prepared to defend them against a rising China. Meanwhile, Asia’s hopes of building a collective security system have taken a beating as Beijing turns muscular in its maritime territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Most Asian nations want peaceful relations between Washington and Beijing, but they are also hedging against the new uncertainties in the relationship between America and China. They worry about the constancy of American purpose in Asia. For example, the Obama administration has moved from seeking a degree of accommodation with China to announcing a high-profile pivot to Asia and then a seeming de-emphasis of the rebalance strategy — all in the past six years.
Asians also worry about the combination of America’s continuing preoccupation with the Middle East, the breakdown of post-Cold War understandings with Russia, hints of renewed isolationism and an increasingly dysfunctional domestic polity in Washington. All of this will make the US a less predictable variable in the Asian power calculus.
Many governments in the region weigh the risks of US-China confrontation and conflict. But they must also be pondering a very different long-run scenario, an American accommodation of China that subordinates the interests of many countries in between. Any form of accommodation between the dominant power, the US, and the rising challenger, China, would involve Washington ceding additional space to, and roles for, Beijing continued…