In March Washington concluded a military bases agreement with the Philippines, giving U.S. forces greater reach into Southeast Asia. In May, Obama ended a ban on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam during a visit to the communist country. In June Secretary of Defense Ash Carter laid out the American vision for a "principled and inclusive" regional security order at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. That event was followed in short order by the start of the eighth high-level Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the U.S. and China, a signature initiative of the Obama administration.
In the face of increasingly fractious relationships in the region the U.S. believes it has a formula for stability and prosperity: The continuation, with minor adjustments, of the security framework centered on U.S. predominance that has been in place since the late 1970s. These are arrangements which best allow, in Carter's lofty rhetoric, "for a future where everyone can continue to rise and prosper."
But are things quite as rosy as Washington thinks? China's emergence as an economic and military heavyweight has occurred faster than almost anyone imagined, and the kind of international environment to which that country aspires does not fit easily with America's vision. The complex disputes in the South China Sea have come to symbolize the tensions between the two great powers. China acts to advance what it perceives to be its legitimate interests, while the U.S. opposes actions that challenge the existing "rules of the road."
In Washington, and in many regional capitals, there is a tendency to believe that China's behavior has been counterproductive. By scaring Southeast Asian countries into Washington's arms, it is unwittingly strengthening the U.S. position in the region and reinforcing faith in Washington's formula for a stable strategic order. On this view, pouring concrete in the South China Sea solidifies the U.S. regional position, not China's interests.
It is certainly true that China's behavior is leading countries with links to Washington to strengthen those ties. Japan and Australia are the most obvious examples of this trend, but others such as Singapore and the Philippines are taking similar steps, with agreements about military bases, training and port access recently being inked.
It is also true that countries that have not traditionally been aligned to the U.S. are developing ties in response to China's behavior. Vietnam is the most obvious of these; a wide-ranging agreement with the U.S. reached in Hanoi in recent weeks underlines its move into the U.S. orbit. Myanmar, once a reliable Chinese client, is also moving toward Washington.
U.S. policymakers and analysts are right to believe that China's behavior and long-term ambition is unsettling many in the region; the ledger of countries tying themselves to Washington is growing. But it does not follow that this will strengthen the U.S. position or make the region safer or more stable. Indeed the opposite is likely to be the case.
There are two fundamental problems with the American vision for Asia. Even though Carter uses the language of networks, webs and architecture to describe recent initiatives in the region, the U.S. vision is underpinned by the old-fashioned notion that regional stability will come from a combination of containment and moral suasion. Critics of Obama wrongly say he has been weak, even though he has surrounded China with powers allied to Washington. But it is far from clear that China can be contained or cowed into submission. Indeed, Washington's approach is, notwithstanding the language of inclusivity and principle, taking the region into a contested future.
The reason for this is that under President Xi Jinping, China simply will not accept, however genuinely it may be offered, that America's view of a principled and inclusive regional order is any such thing. One problem is that Washington's formulation is presented as an offer that China has to accept; there is no effort to remake it to reflect China's interests, values or principles. Equally, China sees the status quo as involving a set of arrangements that were created by others under whose terms its key interests cannot be realized.
Until the underlying purposes of the region's international arrangements can be seen to align with China's core interests, it is extremely unlikely to buy into the status quo. It does not follow that it will actively contest that order in the short or medium term, but policymakers and strategists need to realize that the region's two major powers have irreconcilable visions for Asia's future.
As the Obama administration closes, it is becoming clear that the longer-run settings of Asia's international relations have also come to an end. The key to the region's peace and prosperity over the past 40 years was not just U.S. primacy but its acceptance by all countries in the region. China no longer accepts that view of the status quo, and is pushing the region into a period of overt geopolitical competition.
The challenge now is to manage the contest and to begin to think of creative ways to renegotiate the international environment. Unless we do so, the coming decades will be much more difficult than we imagine.
Nick Bisley is executive director of La Trobe Asia and professor of international relations at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.