Antidote for a Cold War with China

By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director of the Southeast Asia Program, CSIS

The beauty of the Cold War was that the Russians wanted to compete over security, military power, and ideology. U.S. leaders could point to an immediately identifiable and concrete threat. That is not the case today with China.

The purpose of this note is not to describe or suggest a new global dynamic dominated by bipolar competition between the United States and China. The goal instead is to suggest mitigating the potential for that scenario by espousing a more strategic American approach to global competitiveness.

The best solution for creating a cooperative dynamic with China and advancing American interests is for the United States to be unmistakably strong and focused on Asia.

While rhetoric from U.S. leaders supports this objective, current realities do not. Therein lies the danger. Asian partners want a strong U.S. presence in the region, but remain unconvinced because they do not see the case being made for U.S. commercial and security investment in Asia that is both sustained and accepted at the political level within the United States.

Put more starkly, the importance of engagement in Asia has all the compelling economic and security reality of Cold War competition with Russia, but it has not yet been understood at the dinner table in the heart of America. The case has not been made, as it was by the Kennedys and Reagans of the past, that the United States faces a historical and determinative pivot point. The message is that Asia is jobs, Asia is security, Asia is the future. And while America has an enormous head start on getting it right, we need to focus and invest now.

An enduring American strategy for engagement in Asia—one that promotes peace and prosperity and truly promotes U.S. interests—starts at home in the United States.

Having just spent a week in Asia meeting with the region’s top leaders and thinkers from government, businesses, and civil society to gather input for the CSIS U.S.-ASEAN Strategy Commission, several hypotheses have sharpened into clear themes.

The Cold War context is somewhat inevitable given the fact that many of our meetings took place at or around the Shangri-la Dialogue where U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie, painstakingly tried to downplay competition and conflict and describe a future including cooperation, greater transparency, and the pursuit of common goals.

When it comes to Southeast Asia, many in the region are thinking in terms of a rising China and what they see as an uncertain United States. On the one side, there are those who are convinced the United States is a resilient nation and that its governance model and institutions have repeatedly helped it reinvent a strong government and productive economy able to adapt to economic and geopolitical realities. On the other side are those who feel China is rising and the United States is in decline, that China’s numbers and scale— 1.3 billion people and a massive economy growing between 8 and 12 percent—are compelling and unstoppable.

Southeast Asia has not decided how the United States and China will reconcile their collective future, and the result is hedging, which can be bluntly described as countries wanting to participate in China’s economic dynamism while receiving guarantees of U.S. security support should unclear Chinese objectives around sovereignty and geopolitical control become more threatening.

The missing link is that Asia is not sure whether the United States can maintain and institutionalize its political commitments in lieu of strong economic competitiveness in the region. Asia knows, in its gut, that the United States has been the foundational investor and guarantor of security that has launched this era of relative peace and unmistakable prosperity. American companies are invested; the American consumer has been the dominant market; and the American military presence has assured peaceful seas.

However, Asian allies and friends see U.S. policies undercutting its competitiveness. The absence of U.S. leadership in trade policy—including the test delays in passing the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), apparent trends toward prohibitive self-regulation, and new tax and security rules that make it harder for U.S. companies to invest, trade, move people, and make money around the world—raise serious questions about American competitiveness.

That matters now more than ever because China is not the Russia of the Cold War era. While Russia wanted to compete on military power and ideology, China is cleverly following Deng Xiaoping’s guidance and taking a long-term view and building its influence and strength economically. China’s economic rise can and should be good for the United States and Southeast Asia, but that will be true only if the United States competes aggressively and politically supports its important stake in Asia as the engine of growth for the twenty-first century.

If it were not for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the PLA-Navy (PLAN), and their seeming desire to push China’s sovereign interests in Southeast Asia immediately, China’s pitch to its neighbors might be overwhelmingly compelling.

However, China’s aggressiveness in the seas—from the Senkakus and Diaoyu incidents and its support for North Korea in the north to the recent clashes with Vietnam and the Philippines in the south—have stirred atavistic fears around Asia and reminded China’s neighbors that unless their giant neighbor can be convinced to come peacefully into the community of Asian nations and not seek to control or impinge on the sovereignty of other countries, there may be real threat in China’s rise.

Southeast Asia has determined that U.S. engagement is a necessary ballast for helping China to get it right. Engagement is also in the United States’ interest. To sustain and enhance the levels of investment needed to play this role, American leaders need to embrace a greater sense of urgency and be more direct in making the argument that getting Asia right, and doing so now, will ensure that families have jobs and opportunities, that our nation is safe and prosperous, and that we will continue to have a beneficial influence in the world.

America does not need or want another cold war. To prevent one with China, we need to be clear and strategic about our interests in Asia and take immediate action to promote those goals.

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.