How to prevent US-China rivalry from turning Southeast Asia into a conflict zone
- Both powers need to publicly agree on anti-hegemony, settle on ‘rules of the road’, particularly in the South China Sea, and start discussing arms control
- Beijing and Washington must not sleepwalk into war, or force Southeast Asia to choose sides
In Singapore, we recently gathered thought leaders from Southeast Asia, China and the United States. The meeting’s purposes were to understand how the intensifying US-China strategic friction is affecting the region, and to suggest ways to put developments on a more positive trajectory.
They wish to avoid these escalations at all costs. They believe that if Sino-American ties stabilise, they will be able to use their well-honed navigational skills to survive in the space between the two powers. So they want Beijing and Washington to develop a modus vivendi, even if warmth is unachievable.
Given these understandings, fears and realities, what can be done to stabilise Sino-American ties for their benefit and for East and Southeast Asia, and the wider international system? Several ideas arose in the course of our discussions.
Whether such an agreement takes the form of what one might call a “fourth communiqué” between Washington and Beijing is less important than that the declaration is formal and prominently adopted.
Second, there needs to be agreed “rules of the road” governing various aspects of regional big power competition (particularly military). An important line of thinking at the conference concerned maritime behaviour in East and Southeast Asia.
Another area of needed Sino-American interaction is at the strategic level. Space, cyber and conventional weapons races are accelerating, with the growing challenge of short- and intermediate-range missiles in Asia being of signal importance. Understandings and constraints need to be developed concerning short- and medium-range missile deployments by the two powers in East and Southeast Asia.
Ever more missiles in the region create an increasingly sensitive hair trigger on conflict. More broadly, Sino-American arms control discussions and strategic dialogues are desperately needed.
There is no need for Beijing or Washington to demonise or impede the efforts of the other when it comes to infrastructure in Asia. There are plenty of opportunities for either cooperation or parallel and reinforcing action, and there is a big potential role for the US private sector.
If steps such as those sketched out above seem “unrealistic” in today’s environment, it is worth recalling that Mao Zedong, Richard Nixon, Deng Xiaoping, and Jimmy Carter changed the entire strategic chessboard by developing a Sino-American vision that virtually no one in either the US or China anticipated. Their bold visions brought the region and the wider world nearly five decades of peace.
David M. Lampton and Wang Jisi are co-advisers to the Pacific Community Initiative conducted by Johns Hopkins-SAIS and Peking University with support from the China-US Exchange Foundation. Lampton is professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University and Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Centre. Wang is president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University