London—The budding US-China rivalry in East Asia has recently been brought into focus on China’s claims to several islands in the South China Sea. But these incidents, which included a US naval sail-by of the disputed sea territories, are merely symptoms of the long term and tense reality: Beijing and Washington share competing interests in East Asia.
The question is whether these interests are mutually exclusive.
China is now the leading economic power in East Asia. The US is still an important economic powerhouse. But the US not as dominant as it was in the decades of China’s emergence from post-World War II Maoist Communism.
The US, with its networks of military alliances, remains the main security lynchpin of East Asia. In the American view, the security umbrella goes hand-in-hand with the area’s burgeoning economic development. China sees the American military presence as a Cold War leftover and a threat.
So the questions arise: Does China feel it is necessary to supplant the US not only economically but militarily? Does the US regard China as on the offensive in order to make American allies fully dependent on Beijing?
This is the context both for the Obama Administration’s display of military muscle in the region and its attempt to invigorate the US-East Asia trade relationship through the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Obama, uncharacteristically, harbors a strategic vision in the region: trade and military presence are not mutually exclusive and each must be preserved.
Beijing’s strategic outlook is simila. It appears to believe the only way to secure economic dominance is to insist on military supremacy, too.
The US and China are destined to share the same space in East Asia. Like assertive roommates vying for closet space, it’s not clear they can get along.
Political Science Quarterly‘s long account of the current roles and status of US and China.
American Enterprise Institute on trade and security in East Asia.
A short WSJ summary of the link between TPP and US security.