Excellent article by Evan A. Feigenbaum vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Beijing and Washington are competing to set Asia’s rules, norms, and standards. But other countries in the region are increasingly choosing to shape its future themselves.
Asia is changing dramatically, but the region’s two most significant powers are losing the plot. China and the United States are racing to the bottom—refracting issues from trade rules to data access and transfers to the development of a coronavirus vaccine through the prism of their own geopolitical competition. The pandemic has only deepened this dynamic, as the two countries hurl insults at each other and trade charges of culpability.
But other countries in the region increasingly view China, the United States, or both of them as the spoilers of meaningful collective action. And they are stepping into the breach by coordinating and cooperating.
Asia’s future will not be defined by the Sinocentrism that Washington fears or by the American containment that Beijing seeks to forestall.
This means that Asia’s future will not be defined by the Sinocentrism that Washington fears or by the American containment that Beijing seeks to forestall. Instead, what may prevail will be fragmentation, shifting coalitions, and a discombobulated patchwork of rules, norms, and standards.
BIPOLAR DELUSIONS Ironically, for all their ideological and strategic differences, Beijing and Washington are approaching the region in similar ways. Each is encouraging other Asian countries to accept its preferred institutions, norms, standards, and rules. And each is coercing others to forestall closer security or economic integration with its rival.
The United States has punished Asian companies whose sales improved China’s technology base—for example, when it imposed high-tech export controls on Taiwanese chipmaker TSMC to halt sales to a subsidiary of China’s telecom leader, Huawei. For its part, China punished South Korean firms after Washington convinced leaders in Seoul to deploy a U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system, which Beijing detests. China has also implemented a de facto boycott of Australian products, because Canberra echoed Washington’s call to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, and has forced multinational firms to toe Beijing’s line on Hong Kong while the United States urged resistance. And yet the rest of Asia may be unwilling to be trapped in a box of either Chinese or American making.
It is no easy feat to resist Chinese or American pressure, and both sides have powerful cards to play.