A “Weak” America is Making Asia Uneasy

By Ernest Bower & Derwin Pereira

Capt. James T. Jones, commanding officer of the guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh, right, describes his ship to Commander of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s South Sea Fleet (SSF), Vice Adm. Jiang Weilie. China’s assertiveness in Asia has U.S. allies and partners concerned. Source: U.S. Pacific Fleet's flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

Capt. James T. Jones, commanding officer of the guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh, right, describes his ship to Commander of People’s Liberation Army Navy’s South Sea Fleet, Vice Adm. Jiang Weilie. China’s assertiveness in maritime Asia has U.S. allies and partners concerned. Source: U.S. Pacific Fleet’s flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

Chinese actions in maritime Asia are raising questions about American willingness and ability to act decisively in the region. That ambiguity is bad news for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), traditionally dependent on the U.S. security umbrella and more recently enjoying rapid expansion of trade with China.

Chinese perceptions of American weakness are fueling the aggressiveness with which Beijing is pushing its sovereignty agenda in the East and South China seas. China perceives a Washington divided by political partisanship, a questionable economic recovery, and budgetary restraints on military spending. Beijing is also aware of the historical trend that presages a U.S. shift away from interventions abroad after engaging in major wars, in this case Afghanistan and Iraq.

While President Barack Obama tries to convince Asian allies and partners that he is following through on his “rebalance,” or “pivot,” to their region, China is working hard to counter that narrative. In this milieu, dangerous miscalculations with serious geostrategic consequences are possible.

In response, Asian countries are either hedging against the possibility that the United States might not be able to underwrite their security, or are adopting a pro-active stance against Beijing.

An example of hedging is the public denial by the head of the Malaysian armed forces that he had been surprised by China sending warships into Malaysian waters in January. He said, incorrectly, that Malaysia, the United States, and others had been notified before the Chinese ships “strayed into Malaysian waters,” where sailors took an oath to safeguard Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea.

Responses of this kind – intended to avoid escalating tensions with a rising China over the South China Sea disputes – could encourage more aggressive behavior by Beijing in the future. Such responses are based on perceptions rather than realities, but America should still give its allies and security partners no reason to depend on such pacification-by-hedging.

A strong but nuanced U.S. stance will encourage important Asian powers like Indonesia, which is not a claimant in the South China Sea territorial disputes. An Indonesian official declared recently that China claims part of Indonesia’s waters off the Natuna Islands. Beijing includes part of the Natuna Sea within the “nine-dash line” map depicting its extensive claims in the South China Sea.

As a preemptive measure against instability, Jakarta has decided to deploy additional forces around the Natuna Islands. While the measured Indonesian move signals to China that its claims will not go uncontested, any military escalation could be dangerous without a guarantee of broader international intervention, which would be necessary in a face-off between two powers of such disparate strength as China and Indonesia. Such intervention would have to be an essentially American-led initiative.

But it is precisely this confidence in a decisive America that is being tested.

Asia wants to be convinced that the United States has the will and capacity to sustain its role as the ultimate security arbiter in the Indo-Pacific. Savvy Asian policymakers are looking for a U.S. leader who will build a political foundation for proactive engagement in Asia throughout the twenty-first century. Sophisticated Asian friends understand that long term security engagement must be accompanied by enhanced trade and investment links. American priorities must be animated by its national interests.

By contrast, Beijing is developing a narrative of America as a declining power whose weak economic recovery has been compounded by political gridlock serious enough to make President Obama cancel his Asia visit last November. In addition, the White House’s failure to aggressively petition Congress for trade promotion authority, which is crucial for completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, even though economic engagement in Asia is crucial to America’s long-term interests, erodes confidence in Washington’s ability to remain the key offshore balancer in the region.

Worries about an America in decline are of great concern to the 10 members of ASEAN, whose prosperity and stability are a direct result of U.S. engagement.

These are just perceptions, but perceptions are real to those who hold them. The truth is that China’s military advances do not even begin to challenge American primacy. U.S. investment in ASEAN, which far outstrips that of China, is the foundation for development, and the American market remains the final destination for many exports even in an economically ascendant Asia.

But perceptions can have serious consequences, not least in encouraging missteps and miscalculations. In particular, America’s pivot to Asia would prove to be more dangerous than reassuring if it turned out to be a promise without serious intent. Asian countries depending on determined U.S. focus would be led into making erroneous policy choices that would antagonize China, and then would find no sustained American policy of engagement to fall back on.

Asia’s strategic uncertainties give the United States an opportunity to match actions with words and show the region that it is here to stay. This will be the challenge President Obama faces as he visits Asia in late April. If that reassurance is successful, China will come to understand the reality of U.S. commitment and change its behavior toward Southeast Asian countries accordingly.

Mr. Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and holds the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @BowerCSIS. Mr. Derwin Pereira heads a Singapore-based political consulting company and also is a member of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies & codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.

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5 comments for “A “Weak” America is Making Asia Uneasy

  1. sattar rind
    April 17, 2014 at 14:43

    Without USA security Asian country would remain in fear of uncertinty. Russian also heading toward second phase of cold war. China is its natural partner. But Obama unable tomanage such fear as he is being assumed weak president. His visit would not change prevelling situation as it agressive tone and action if required

  2. sattar rind
    April 17, 2014 at 14:50

    Without USA security Asian country would remain in fear of uncertinty. Russian also heading toward second phase of cold war. China is its natural partner. But Obama unable tomanage such fear as he is being assumed weak president. His visit would not change prevelling situation as it needs agressive tone and action when required

  3. August 15, 2014 at 20:46

    The authors suggest steps that would inevitably reinstate the USA as a hegemonic power at the systemic level. While China is risk-averse and pragmatic, it is unlikely to give up what it considers its historical claims that are now pretty indelibly etched on its collective national psyche, contextualised by a century of humiliation meted out by Western powers and Japan. If China remains a cohesive state, irrespective of the nature its domestic political dispensation, the leadership in Beijing is unlikely to concede the most fundamental of these claims, especially those challenged by Japan, and US allies and strategic partners in Southeast Asia. Taken to its logical conclusion, then, the authors’ recommendations are likely to set the scene for a substantial clash between US and Chinese forces. The economic, financial and commercial impact of such a conflict on a globalised landscape does not leave much to the imagination, and should be avoided. Muscular military action by PACOM forces and their allies would have worked well in the 1970s and 1980s – when, incidentally, China served as a tacit US strategic ally against the Soviet Union – but is unlikely to go unchallenged in this century. Beijing is unlikely to give in again to foreign domination of the kind that led to the Boxer Rebellion or the Opium wars.

    Does that mean ASEAN states must do what small and weak states usually do when confronted with assertive large powers? Well, the answer probably is yes, and no. Yes to the extent that in the geopolitical reality of power-politics and realpolitik, strong states do have greater leeway in advancing their interests than do small and weak ones. States “borrow” power by aligning with patrons, by queering the “natural” pitch, and creating strategic space for themselves where none would have existed otherwise. This has been the case with Japan, South Korea and several ASEAN states. However, only when the patron’s vital interests are threatened will the latter expend blood and treasure on its clients’ behalf.

    Vital interests are a subjective category and perceptions are important. Within the Beltway establishment, there is now debate coursing over the role of the United States in a rapidly changing world. While all US leaders continue, and so they must if they wish to retain any scintilla of political credibility at home or abroad, to stress America’s global leadership, the meaning, purpose, form and expression of that leadership are no longer as clear as they were, say, in the 1970s and 1980s. Those who persist in the belief that America’s virtually insuperable military dominance gives it both the right and responsibility to manage the world’s crisis-spots better than any alternatives should simply examine the record in Iraq and Afghanistan – without even having to analyse the outcomes in Syria and Libya.

    Many Americans and their acolytes overseas naturally believe Washington is a shiny city on the hill with solutions to all the world’s ills, and the capacity to frame the global future in its own image. To the extent that they believe this, it is the reality for them – as the authors suggest. However, for those of the rest of the planet’s population at the receiving end of America’s cleansing power, especially non-combatants in various trouble-spots thoughtlessly killed or injured by the world’s greatest military machine, and those of its allies and strategic partners, the picture may look somewhat different. At least that would appear to have been the case from a reading of Pew’s series of global opinion surveys over the past decade.

    And history is a cruel teacher, although few appear ready or able to take its lessons to heart. Primary reliance on lethal force might secure temporary tactical victory; strategic trends evolve over time, powered by a complex dynamic of action-reaction dialectics not amenable to killing a few thousand Iraqis and Afghans one day, for instance, and another couple of thousands of Palestinians, again, for instance, tomorrow. If American military force failed to address, far less resolve, the challenges posed by a few thousand Iraqi and Afghan renegades, how would killing, say, a couple of millions of Chinese, resolve the problems apparent in the South China Sea?

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