US President Joe Biden addresses his European partners the day after the NATO summit at the EU-US Summit in Brussels, Belgium, 15 June 2021 (Photo: Nicolas Landemard/Le Pictorium/Cover Images). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

The United States’ economic and military power, and its global political leadership, were indispensable ingredients for economic development and strategic stability in East Asia in the decades following the Second World War. Even as debate rages about whether the writing’s on the wall for US strategic primacy in the region, there’s no likely future in which the United States doesn’t remain a major export market, a significant source of investment, ideas and popular culture and, for some, an important military partner, even in a more China-centric regional and global order, East Asia Forum reported.

How the United States makes the adjustment to whatever ‘new normal’ emerges in Asia over the coming years and decades is going to have impacts far beyond its shores. The political mood in Washington is simple: the United States has been too soft for too long and needs to pursue a thoroughgoing program of competition with China. Donald Trump fertilised the idea; it continues to flourish under the Biden team.

Some competition between these two great powers is inevitable, and even necessary. But as Jessica Chen Weiss has argued, the current trend towards treating every arena of US–China relations as the site of a zero-sum struggle for dominance will ultimately damage US national interests. It ‘threaten[s] to undermine the sustainability of American leadership in the world’ by ‘crowding out efforts to revitalise an inclusive international system that would protect US interests and values even as global power shifts and evolves’.

An obsession with exhaustively countering China also obscures Washington’s view of the interests its key partners in the Asia Pacific have in the de-escalation of US–China tensions, an issue that Iain Henry highlights in our lead article this week. All of Asia’s economies are deeply interdependent with China; interdependence is the source of Asia’s prosperity, including that of China; and it’s no one-way street.

The Trump years highlighted the concern of US allies in Asia of abandonment by their security guarantor. But as Henry writes, an equal and underappreciated dilemma inherent in enmeshment in US alliance frameworks is ‘entrapment — the risk that US actions might raise tensions, or even start a conflict, that allies would rather avoid’.

Henry’s research shows how this fear of ‘entrapment’ loomed large in the minds of post-war Asian leaders who — contrary to US expectations that they were in need of constant reassurance of the credibility of alliance commitments — often welcomed US efforts to defuse security crises and backing down from conflict.

The lessons for today’s predicaments couldn’t be more obvious. ‘Because US allies are undeniably concerned about China’s growing power, traditional ideas of international reputation would expect these allies to be pleased by a demonstration that Washington is willing to confront Beijing’.

Not necessarily so. Take the recent visit of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. There is an understandable urge in the West to show solidarity with the embattled island democracy, but the trip was rightly criticised by US-based China experts for doing little except raising the risks of a war that would most likely end in that democracy’s destruction. Similarly frustrated were those ‘US allies…worried about Chinese power and assertiveness’ who, per the logic of perpetual reassurance-seeking, ‘should have welcomed any sign that Washington is willing to confront Beijing’.

Instead, leaders in Tokyo, Canberra and Singapore made it politely clear that Pelosi’s visit was a provocation the region could have done without. As Henry says, ‘Nobody in the region will applaud a display of US strength if the result is an avoidable security crisis’, notwithstanding their anxieties about what China’s rise portends for their security.

Taking the temperature down in the US–China relationship is good for the region, relieving some of the dilemmas for allies that Henry analyses. But it also serves a key US interest in securing a role built to withstand a shifting regional order, one that goes beyond deepening security ties with traditional allies to embrace deeper political and economic relationships with South and Southeast Asia and the region’s ASEAN-based multilateral institutions.

An overwhelming short-term priority is doing whatever it takes to sustain the status quo over Taiwan indefinitely, taking steps to reassure Beijing of US commitment to the ‘one China’ policy and opposition to Taiwanese independence, while judiciously supporting Taiwan’s efforts to build up its military deterrent and rehabilitating the policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ about the US response to an invasion. This formula offers the best — indeed, probably the only — hope of prolonging the survival of Taiwan’s autonomy and democracy, and opens some breathing room for discussions about ‘guardrails’ surrounding this and other potential flashpoints in the region.

Kicking the Taiwan-can down the road also avoids a monumentally costly test of whether the credibility of the United States’ security commitments to other Asian allies would survive a Chinese invasion that goes unanswered by a US military response. Henry’s analytical framework suggests that allies’ need for credibility-signalling has been exaggerated and that they might survive such a crisis. Whatever the answer, we’d surely rather never find out.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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