How the US uses its Asian allies in great-power competition with China
- The US defence secretary’s tour of Southeast Asia serves to apply pressure on its allies to choose sides
- America’s claim of being a reliable partner and stabilising influence in the region should also be questioned in light of its wavering commitment in the past
Further, he said, he would take the opportunity to make clear the US stance on challenging what he called “unhelpful and unfounded” claims by China in the South China Sea.
To boost allies’ confidence in America’s military commitment, Austin showcased America’s military muscles: before flying to Asia he visited Alaska’s Eielson Air Force Base, where he made a speech against the backdrop of three F-35 Lightning II aircraft.
Meanwhile, according to the Centre for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, the US appears to be moving towards a strategy of “full spectrum competition” in preparation for a possible great-power conflict.
Hundreds of thousands of civilian and military lives have been lost in the US-led “war on terror” in Afghanistan, yet the prospects for peace and stability in the country remain dim. After nearly 20 years of war, one might ask how the US has contributed to the stability of that region.
And let’s not forget Vietnam and the Korean peninsula. The Korean war and the Vietnam war were humanitarian catastrophes and the aftermath of both wars is still being felt – not least by the Vietnamese who were made refugees by the hostilities and the Korean families parted by war.
It would be interesting to hear Austin extol America’s role as a “stabilising force” in Vietnam when he visits.
In Singapore, Austin pledged that the US would build partnerships that would allow countries to make their own decisions. This is doubtful.
There is a long-standing consensus in Asia and the Pacific that the region depended on China for economic growth and the US for security. But as China’s economy grew to be the world’s second-largest, its increasing global influence inevitably challenges the alliance system that forms the basis for America’s security commitment to its Asian allies.
China’s huge market and abundant economic opportunities are a big draw for other Asian countries. Smaller Asian nations that benefited from the prosperity brought by China’s boom now find themselves more dependent on China than ever before.
This security-versus-development dilemma is further complicated by big-power competition as the hawkish US policy that was imposed on China by the Trump administration is inherited by the Biden administration.
When Austin vows to strengthen America’s network of allies and partners, no one doubts that he is asking these allies and partners to choose sides, the same as the US has done in Europe. Forced to choose, how could these Asian countries exercise their sovereign right of making their own decisions, as Austin promised?
The change of government under the US democratic system brings huge uncertainty not only to Asian countries but also to the whole international community.
At a time when fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and restoring the economy are top priorities for the world, international cooperation is more necessary than ever. Yet the US has used every lever it has to push big-power competition.
When its Asian network of allies and partners is also being used to push big-power competition, the dilemma of having to choose a side will be thrust upon nearly every state, like it or not. How much can the US be trusted to deliver on its boast that it plays a stabilising role in the region? That’s the question.
Captain (Retired) Tian Shichen is founder and president of the Global Governance Institution and director of the Centre for International Law of Military Operations in Beijing. He is also a China Forum expert
Leon Zhang is an intern at the Global Governance Institution