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The Endangered Asian Century: America, China and the Perils of Confrontation

  • The KIPS
  • Sep, 2020
  • 81
  • US-China Ties

Amid rising tensions between the two countries, the strategic choices that Washington and Beijing make will determine the future of Asia and shape the contours of the emerging global order

“In recent years, people have been saying that the next century will be the century of Asia and the Pacific, as if that were sure to be the case. I disagree with this view.” The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made that argument to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988.

More than 30 years later, Deng has proved prescient. After decades of extraordinary economic success, Asia today is the world’s fastest-growing region. Within this decade, Asian economies will become larger than the rest of the world's economies combined, something that has not been true since the 19th century. Yet even now, Deng’s warning holds: An Asian century is neither inevitable nor foreordained.

Asia has prospered because Pax Americana, which has held since the end of World War II, provided a favourable strategic context. But now, the troubled US-Chinese relationship raises profound questions about Asia’s future and the shape of the emerging international order. South-east Asian countries, including Singapore, are especially concerned, as they live at the intersection of the interests of various major powers and must avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices.

The status quo in Asia must change. But will the new configuration enable further success or bring dangerous instability? That depends on the choices that the United States and China make, separately and together. The two powers must work out a modus vivendi that will be competitive in some areas without allowing rivalry to poison cooperation in others.

Asian countries see the United States as a resident power that has vital interests in the region. At the same time, China is a reality on the doorstep. Other Asian countries do not want to be forced to choose between the two. And if either attempts to force such a choice - if Washington tries to contain China’s rise or Beijing seeks to build an exclusive sphere of influence in Asia - they will begin a course of confrontation that will last decades and put the long-heralded Asian century in jeopardy.

The Two Phases Of Pax Americana

Pax Americana in Asia in the 20th century had two distinct phases. The first was from 1945 to the 1970s, during the early decades of the Cold War, when the United States and its allies competed with the Soviet bloc for influence. Although China joined the Soviet Union to confront the United States during the wars in Korea and Vietnam, its economy remained inwardly focused and isolated, and it maintained few economic links with other Asian countries. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Asia, free-market economies were taking off. Japan's was the earliest to do so, followed by the newly industrialising economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

What made Asia’s stability and prosperity possible was the United States. The United States championed an open, integrated and rules-based global order, and provided a security umbrella under which regional countries could cooperate and peacefully compete. American multinational corporations invested extensively in Asia, bringing with them capital, technology and ideas.

As Washington promoted free trade and opened US markets to the world, Asian trade with the United States grew.

Two pivotal events in the 1970s shifted Pax Americana in Asia into a new phase: the secret visit to China in 1971 by Henry Kissinger, then the US national security adviser, which laid the basis for US-Chinese rapprochement after decades of hostility; and the launch, in 1978, of Deng’s programme of “reform and opening up”, which allowed China’s economy to take off.

By the end of the decade, economic barriers were coming down, and international trade was growing rapidly. After the Vietnam War and the war in Cambodia ended, Vietnam and the other countries of Indochina were able to focus their energies and resources on economic development, and they started catching up with the rest of Asia.

Many Asian countries had long viewed the United States and other developed countries as their main economic partners. But they now increasingly seized the opportunities created by China’s rapid development. Trade and tourism with China grew, and supply chains became tightly integrated. Within a few decades, China went from being economically inconsequential for the rest of Asia to being the region’s biggest economy and major economic partner. China’s influence in regional affairs grew correspondingly.

Still, Pax Americana held, and these radical changes in China’s role took place within its framework. China was not in a position to challenge U...

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