There are two trends that bear on China’s role in the world and that therefore have consequences for America and its allies and friends. The first is that, over the past two decades in particular, China has raised the risks that Washington will have to assume to protect, or even reassure, states that have relied on preponderant American power for protection. Russian arms sales to China, which cover just about every category (including surface ships, submarines, fighter jets, air defense and anti-ship missiles, surveillance and fire control radars, and helicopters) and have amounted to $31 billion between 1992-2012. They have played a pivotal part bringing about this change, and the projected sale of the Su-35 multirole fighter will extend Beijing’s capacity to patrol the vast South China Sea and to project power with greater effect. Washington’s allies and friends still believe that America can be relied upon to defend them in an-all out war with China. But when it comes to skirmishes, the controlled application of force, and displays of power designed to intimidate, the value of the American connection as a counterbalance to China is diminishing. States in the region understand that the United States will risk confronting China only under exceptional circumstances and so the cumulative effect of carefully calibrated displays of strength, and the accompanying disregard for American power, will inevitably have psychological repercussion across East Asia that work to China’s advantage.
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The second trend, still only dimly discernible, is closely connected to the first. It has to do with the strategies that the states that feel most exposed to Chinese power will adopt to adjust to the eastern power transition. Through its still-nascent “Look East” policy India, whose security depends on China not having free rein in East Asia, has begun to beef up strategic cooperation with states in that region that are adjusting to China’s surging power. New Delhi formed a “strategic partnership” with Indonesia and bilateral ties have grown, including in the military sphere. India has been intensifying security consultations with Japan and Australia, deepening defense cooperation with Vietnam, and participating in naval exercises with the United States, Japan and Australia. And it has revamped its relationship with the United States: the suspicion and intermittent hostility that marked the Cold War era have given way to a gradual strategic convergence. No matter what the two proclaim publicly their new course is in large part a reaction to China’s rise.
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The power shift that occurred between Athens and Sparta culminated in a devastating war. The one now unfolding between China and the United States in East Asia will not. China’s focus is on economic development and its post-1978 economic reforms—call them the Deng Xiaoping Revolution—has enmeshed in the global economy, giving it a big stake in stability making it averse to crises and conflicts that rattle markets and unnerve investors. Still, there are other impulses than those that motivate homo economicus: pride, passion, the quest for respect and standing, the desire for revenge. Thucydides’ masterpiece is chock-full of examples of how powerfully these sentiments shape political decisions, particularly in times of uncertainty and apprehension. The challenge in East Asia—for China and for others in the region—will be to manage the consequences of the power transition so that it produces a new and stable equilibrium.
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