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Two superpowers collide in the Pacific

BY   March 24, 2016 at 1:07 PM EDT
U.S. and Chinese national flags flutter on a light post in Tiananmen Square ahead of a welcoming ceremony for U.S. President Barack Obama, in Beijing, November 12, 2014. Photo by Petar Kujundzic/Reuters

U.S. and Chinese national flags flutter on a light post in Tiananmen Square ahead of a welcoming ceremony for U.S. President Barack Obama in 2014. Photo by Petar Kujundzic/Reuters

HANOI — There’s no arguing the obvious: The Pacific and its attendant seas cover a vast space, from California to the Indian Ocean, and thousands of frequent flier miles that I have been logging over two months from Los Angeles to Singapore, to Sydney and Auckland, to Bali, Vietnam, Hong Kong and back to Honolulu. But the question that will determine if the Asian 21st century remains peaceful or reverts to conflict is whether all this water can accommodate two superpowers — China and the United States.

And that question is at the center of debate and strategic discussions across Asia — some of it conducted openly and loudly as in Australia, some of it more quietly as in Singapore and Vietnam.

Now a rising China is challenging 70 years of American preeminence in the Pacific as it becomes the world’s second largest economy with a rapidly growing military budget. Its challenge is most visible as it builds military installations on rocks and islands in the South China Sea. The countries of Asia are in the middle of that struggle, juggling geography, history, and economics and using what influence they have to keep a military clash at bay.

Singapore, for instance, may be a dot on the vast Pacific map, but it has influence and maneuvering room beyond what its 5 million population would suggest. China is its major trading partner, but the U.S. leads in foreign direct investment. While not an official American ally, it quietly pursues various forms of military cooperation as a “strategic partner” with the United States, most recently allowing the stationing of U.S. P-8 reconnaissance planes to patrol nearby waters.

As one former Western diplomat remarked, “It is the only country in the region (along with Vietnam) with a strategic sense.”

Singapore’s low-key approach applies, even in its worries about the future of U.S. policy and the baffling turns in American politics.

At a session with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel at a Singapore university, a member of the audience said out loud about the presidential campaign what many officials and analysts say privately: “Where do you find all these crazy people?”

The U.S. diplomat was sufficiently diplomatic to glide past the comment, but lower-ranking American officials around Asia are confronted almost daily with questions about the campaign, especially in countries with substantial or majority Muslim populations. They try to reassure their interlocutors that the candidates, Donald Trump and others, do not speak for American policy.

Among Asian business and policy elites, a key focus is on the recently signed, 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, which they regard as the signal element of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, and which is facing growing opposition from left and right in U.S. politics.

As one economic analyst put it, congressional failure to ratify the trade deal would be taken in the region as a major sign of U.S. retreat from the world.

“If the far away power leaves us, we will go with the closer by power,” he said.

What is said more often behind closed doors among Singapore’s elites, is voiced with a roar in Australia;s brash, if often parochial, media and among its brawling politicians and journalists. These debates remind visitors that rugby is a major national sport. What they also reflect is that Australia is a country with diverse instincts and interests. Its head of state is the Queen of England; its security is tied to the United States, but the first billboards one sees driving out of Sydney airport are in Chinese, touting real estate and banks.

Most recently the arguments revolved around what Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, or maybe did not say, in his official visit to Washington and meeting with President Obama. At his speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Turnbull said China was obliged to follow international rules in the South China Sea and elsewhere and vigorously reaffirmed the Australian alliance with Washington.

The Turnbull trip reignited a debate between two long-time protagonists, academic Hugh White and political columnist Greg Sheridan. White, whose views get far wider hearing in Canberra than in Washington, said Turnbull should have used to occasion to warn the Obama administration that Australia and other nations in the region would not support American efforts to retain “primacy” in Asia. As he wrote on the website of Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank, “America … is going to have to rethink its role in Asia and its relationship with China.”

Sheridan retorted that White was advocating “pre-emptive capitulation.” to China. And from there he denounced White”s “nutty strategic prescription that it should be the object of Australian policy to get the U.S. to actually reduce its military effort in Asia.”

Militarily, the government recently put new cards on the table with a defense white paper that called for a $30 billion increase in defense spending, including 12 new submarines.

A key element in the debate is the ever deepening economic relationship between Australia and China, not only in minerals which have helped fuel both the Chinese economic boom and the longest sustained period of prosperity in Australian history. But its ties are also thickening in everything from tourism to the thousands of Chinese students attending Australian universities.

Bob Carr, a former premier of the state of New South Wales and briefly a foreign minister in a Labor government, has been a key proponent of the argument that Australia is risking its future with a China that could have a middle class of more than a billion in a decade if it lashes itself to the mast of American preeminence in Asia. But even he acknowledges that it is difficult for outside nations to determine China’s bottom line in power politics — is it ready to share the Pacific or does it want to remove American power west of Hawaii? As he acknowledged, “The Chinese debate their economic policy more openly than their strategic policy.”

As remote as China is from Australia, it is the giant next door to Vietnam, a geographic condition that has produced 4,000 years of tension and conflict along with economic and cultural cohesion. At the moment, Vietnam and China share similar Leninist political systems and the governing proposition with their people: We will make you richer; you stay out of politics. Many of Hanoi’s major streets may be named for leaders and generals who repulsed Chinese invaders over the centuries (they fought a three-month war with heavy casualties on both sides on Vietnam’s northern border as recently as 1979), but Vietnam conducts its daily economic and political life in the shadow of an increasingly powerful and assertive neighbor.

In Hanoi and in the former South Vietnamese capital now called Ho Chi Minh City (though many residents and signs still label it Saigon), there is constant analysis and speculation about the designs and direction of Vietnamese policy and a leadership recently reaffirmed in office at the party congress. Some analysts and diplomats insist the leadership has made a strategic choice to bind itself as much as possible into economic and political relationships with its ASEAN neighbors as well as the United States and other Asian and Pacific powers. It has signed five new trade deals, including the TPP, and it makes quiet arrangements with countries like India to improve its surveillance and intelligence operations in the South China Sea, or what it calls the East Sea. Others are more cautious,asserting that the most Vietnam can do is hedge against China and develop some maneuvering room but with policies that will always be reactive to winds from Beijing.

Perhaps the most striking example of the ambiguity is in the daily lives of young Vietnamese, those born since the end of the American war in 1975 and who represent nearly half the country’s 91 million people. And half the population are also connected to the Internet by their ever-present iPhones. Some analysts argue they represent an opposition party in a one-party state. They certainly have far more access to Facebook and other social media than Chinese citizens who confront a massive firewall. There are limits; bloggers do get arrested. But the government and party, according to some analysts, have taken the calculated risk that if Vietnam is going to reach the middle income level of its neighbor Thailand (its per capita income now about a third of Thailand’s) it has to open itself up to technology and the Internet.

After more than a century of colonization and foreign domination, the Vietnamese have their country back and are working with great determination and energy to rebuild it from decades of war. Their efforts are seen from little houses amid rice paddies to glitzy Saigon hotels that would put Las Vegas to shame. However the politics work out on a daily basis, and in a country where there is still compulsory male military service, their neighbors know they will not give up that hard won independence without a fight.

For Vietnam and all its Southeast Asian neighbors, the Pacific seas have grown choppier. They worry about the ripple effects of a slowing Chinese economy. The terrorist threat is never far away even in Singapore, which recently broke up an alleged terrorist ring of Bangladeshi construction workers. And they watch with growing concern the rising military tensions in the waters around them.