Beijing and Washington: Rivals In Asia

Later this month, the navies of the United States, India, Japan, Australia and Singapore will get together in the Bay of Bengal for one of the largest peacetime joint military exercises ever. Dubbed Malabar 07, the exercise—which will include some two dozen ships, including two U.S. aircraft carriers—stems in part from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent push to strengthen ties with India and other Asian democracies. Abe, who visited Delhi in late August, is pursuing what he calls a "quadrilateral initiative," aiming at a security structure that would link India and Japan with the United States and Australia, promoting cooperation and interoperability among their military forces.

His motivation for the move isn't hard to understand. Around the same time Abe was in India, 6,500 troops from Russia, China and four Central Asian countries converged on the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk to show off their own armed prowess. The "Peace Mission 07" exercise was held under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—a group formed by Beijing and Moscow in 2001 that is ostensibly dedicated to combating terrorism. Participants staged live-fire exercises involving paratroops, armored vehicles, and fighter-bombers. Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected any comparison between the SCO and alliances like NATO, saying such analogies were "improper either in content or form."

Yet the underlying message was clear enough. Taken together, the Malabar and Peace Mission exercises point to a potentially dangerous reality taking shape: the emergence of two competing security camps in Asia. On the one hand stands the United States, still the area's dominant military power; traditional allies such as Japan and Australia; and a few new friends, such as Mongolia and, potentially, India. On the other stands China, which is using its rapid economic growth and accelerating defense spending, as well as close ties to Russia, Pakistan, the Central Asian states, Burma, and Cambodia, to raise its own profile and to develop a sphere of influence. As the competition accelerates, more and more states are finding themselves forced to choose sides.

This is unlikely to result in a stark new cold war; for economic reasons, especially, countries in both spheres should remain more integrated than the Soviet and U.S. blocs were during the second half of the 20th century. And a number of states—including South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam—seem determined to sit on the fence. Still, the security situation is growing increasingly tense as the sides jockey for influence.

Different experts describe the emerging division in different terms. Michael Green, a former special adviser to President George W. Bush on Asian affairs who now works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), sees it as a "maritime versus [a] continental" divide, with Asia's great land-based powers, China and Russia, aligning against seafaring states like the United States, Japan, Australia and Singapore. "That is a specter that concerns everyone in the region, and no one wants to go there," says Green. "There is a hardening of camps, and it could be destabilizing." Other scholars describe Beijing and Washington as more like competing centers of gravity, with smaller nations moving in and out of their orbits (or hovering between them) as interests dictate.

The forces driving the trend include rising nationalism and historical grievances. China remains intent on one day regaining control over Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province. To that end, it is steadily beefing up its own naval forces in ways designed to stymie U.S. power and project force well into the Pacific. China is also using its see-no-evil, hear-no-evil foreign policy to strengthen diplomatic ties to neighbors that could help it counter Washington. Russia—which supplies the lion's share of China's advanced weaponry, including the advanced anti-ship missiles and quiet submarines China needs for a blue-water navy—shares Beijing's resentment of Washington's moralizing on human rights. So do most members of the SCO, all of which (except tiny Kyrgyzstan) have authoritarian governments. In fact, Uzbekistan refused to join the SCO until Bush sharply chastised its president, Islam Karimov, for a violent crackdown on protesters in May 2005. Karimov was so angry that he reversed course and promptly signed up. And in July 2005, he participated in an SCO summit where leaders called on the United States to withdraw from military bases in Central Asia.

The SCO was once dismissed as a talking shop, but this year's exercise—the first time all six members (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) contributed troops—showed that it's becoming a force to be reckoned with. It was also telling that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad turned up to watch. The SCO has developed a considerable bureaucratic structure, with departments aimed at promoting cooperation in a variety of areas, including fighting drug trafficking, ethnic separatism, and terrorism. Despite the group's declared goals, its true aims are ambiguous at best; a 2005 exercise with Chinese and Russian troops involved the staging of an amphibious landing—clearly aimed at Taiwan, since landlocked Central Asia has little use for such missions.

Apart from anti-Western ire, another powerful glue binding the Chinese camp is energy security. Beijing is desperate to ensure that it has enough petroleum to power China's growing economy. Russia, for its part, has plenty of oil to sell. Both states, therefore, have good reason to want to limit U.S. influence in Central Asia, which is one of the world's most important new sources of oil and natural gas. Moscow and Beijing hope to keep Washington out by controlling pipeline development in the region. SCO members already control one fifth of the world's petroleum resources, and that share would increase dramatically if Iran, which now has observer status, were admitted to the club. It's no surprise that the SCO has placed energy security at the center of its expanding institutional framework, creating an "Energy Club" in July to promote cooperation among members. Hampshire College professor Michael Klare argues that energy is the key to understanding much of the emerging great-power rivalry in Asia. "Both the U.S. and China are driven increasingly by a fight for supplies," he says.

Beijing's growing strength and its new partnerships have unnerved U.S. allies like Japan, Australia and India, prompting them to draw closer to Washington—and, for the first time, to each other. Japan's Abe has begun promoting what he calls "value-based diplomacy" in the hope that he can persuade other Asian democracies to forge closer diplomatic and strategic ties. In March he and his Australian counterpart, John Howard, signed an unprecedented bilateral security agreement promising cooperation on intelligence and military issues.

Canberra has also vowed to join a multibillion-dollar U.S.-Japanese effort to construct a missile-defense shield. The plan calls for Japan to contribute valuable high-tech expertise and could see Australia offer its powerful ground-based radar, which can spot distant missile launches better than a sea-based system. The missile shield will ostensibly be dedicated to warding off attacks from North Korea. But many observers see it as a hedge against Beijing. Federico Bordonaro of the Rome-based think tank PINR argues, "The U.S. is going to need Australia's support for checking an ambitious China in the region."

The Malabar exercises will provide another such hedge. Security analysts say the venue of the maneuvers was carefully chosen to send a signal to the Chinese: namely, that the United States and its friends could thwart Beijing's "string of pearls" strategy, under which China aims to secure ports in friendly countries like Pakistan and Burma to ensure control over vital sea lanes. The Chinese certainly got the message. "The target of the maneuvers is China, although they deny it," says Guo Xiangang, a professor at the China International Studies Institute in Beijing. Chinese analysts say the exercise is part of a broader effort—one that will become clearer in the coming years—to dissuade China from seeking to dominate Asia. "The U.S. is concerned that China could catch up with the U.S. and challenge its regional dominance in East Asia," says Shen Dingli, an international-affairs expert at Fudan University in Shanghai. And according to Shen, Washington will do all it can to prevent that, in part by strengthening bilateral ties with Asian states.

Despite the many warning signs, however, some scholars advise against gloomy predictions. They argue that the SCO, for example, shouldn't be taken seriously, since its members, while sharing some interests, are divided by others. Though allies of convenience, Russia and China have a history of deep-rooted animosity, and both are ultimately more eager to do business with the West than with each other. "Putin is anti-Western, a former KGB hack, but he's not going to go to war or even start major confrontation with the U.S. for the sake of the Chinese," says Robert Dujarric, a security expert at Temple University in Tokyo. "The other countries of the SCO are insignificant, and they're balancing their bets."

Economic interconnections also greatly complicate the picture. "We look at China and we analogize to the cold war," says Brad Glosserman, executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu. "The fact is, however, that China is integrated into the West and the global economy in ways that the Soviet Union never was." Lin Chong-pin, a Taipei-based security expert and former Taiwanese defense official, agrees: "On the surface we see two blocs emerging, but when you take a deeper look, it's not so simple." Indeed, India may be courting the U.S. and Japan, for example—and the recent U.S.-India nuclear deal was a huge step in this direction. But India is also very eager to do business with China, and signed an economic-cooperation and border agreement with its giant neighbor in 2005.

Meanwhile, China also recently overtook the United States as Japan's leading trade partner—one reason that Abe, despite his security moves, has also worked hard at improving relations with Beijing. Even Australia, despite a long history of close relations with Washington, now depends on China for raw materials and other trade to keep its economy growing, and has thus become notably reluctant to criticize Beijing on human rights or Taiwan. "We're dancing with elephants," says Michael Fullilove of the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

Economic factors also help explain why a number of states have refused to align with either security camp. South Korea, once a stalwart U.S. ally, has lately seemed to be tilting toward China, which—here again—recently became Seoul's pre-eminent business partner. Of course, South Korea remains tightly bound to the United States through close military links, and it is unlikely to abandon those ties any time soon. But the drift toward the middle is unmistakable. Many South Koreans resent Americans as imperialist meddlers, and disputes over borders and history have soured relations with Japan—one reason Abe hasn't included the staunchly democratic South Koreans in the ranks of his "values based" coalition. President Roh Moo-Hyun greatly irked Washington in 2005 when he suggested that Seoul might seek to act as a "balancer" between the region's great powers. And the government in Indonesia seems to have a similar ambition. Formerly a close ally of Washington and Canberra, Jakarta inked a defense cooperation agreement with the Chinese in 2005 that could include development of a missile arsenal. The largely Muslim Indonesians, dismayed by U.S. conduct in the Middle East, are also reported to be considering the purchase of Russian fighter planes and submarines—all part of a strategy aimed at playing the great powers off each other.

Some U.S. allies fear Washington, distracted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is focusing its attention on a few of its larger friends in Asia while neglecting the smaller ones. Case in point is Thailand. Once famously close to the United States, the Thais have been courted assiduously by Beijing since U.S. aid dried up in the last few years. China has offered Bangkok help coping with its Muslim insurgency and offered to build a canal through Thailand's Kra Isthmus, which would let Chinese ships bypass the strategically sensitive Straits of Malacca. Bangkok has responded warmly to such offers. But Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok says that while Thais, like most Southeast Asian states, would like close ties with China, they hope the United States will stick around in force to counterbalance it.

"Everybody has concerns about China, but the closer you are to China the less you're able to articulate them out loud," says the CSIS's Glosserman. "I think everyone is hedging in every direction." That may be. And it will probably be some time before China and its new friends pose a serious military threat to the United States and its camp. But they're trying—and if trends continue in the current direction, they may well someday succeed.