Asia-Pacific Security is About More Than The U.S. and China

With the Republican presidential race heating up, Chinese President Xi visits the U.S. at an inauspicious time. Given the heightened political posturing the rhetoric around his visit could plumb new depths. Republican candidates in particular will revert to a simplistic 'us vs. them' characterization of the US-China relationship.

To be clear, this is not a uniquely Republican or even American proclivity—this perceived bipolarity is the most common narrative in the Asia-Pacific region as well. For many, it is inevitable that the US and China, as the world's largest economies and biggest defence spenders, will become increasingly locked in a battle for influence, and that this will define contemporary geopolitics in the region.

It is inaccurate, and yet all too common, to see the situation through this bipolar lens. As I and colleagues argue in a forthcoming Chatham House report, the future in East Asia is 'flexi-nodal', with many nations acting, and at times leading, under different circumstances. This is true today, and it will be even more so in the coming decades.

Power cannot simply be measured by the size of a nation's military or by its economy. Increasingly power is more diversified and diffuse. It is not simply about GDP, but also GDP per capita. It is not just about military spending but also about capabilities and interoperability with allies. Demographics must be considered, as well as a nation's alliances and partnerships, the strength of its corporate sector, the attractiveness of its education system and the penetration of its media.

When these features of power are considered a far more complex picture of the power distribution in Asia can be seen. In military terms, Japan and India are becoming more important. Japan is 'normalizing' the conditions under which it can act, whilst India is re-energizing and investing substantially in its military. They are also building informal partnerships with one another and others in the region and beyond to create new networks of collaboration.

In economic terms, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) could diversify the regional dependence on China through opening trade, as could an ASEAN free trade agreement. India's economic growth could outstrip China's this year - the IMF forecasts it will be 7.5% against China's 6.8%. China's recent stock market crash has further highlighted its structural weaknesses.

Over the longer term, China, along with Japan, faces significant challenges as demographic changes begin to bite. The U.S. is less exposed to this in the medium-term, whilst a demographic dividend is still to be realized in India. Indonesia, as the fourth largest country in the world in population terms, is also a significant actor, although like China and Japan, it is aging.

In this flexi-nodal world, there is no bipolarity, nor is there a need to manage a 'great power accord' as China has suggested. Instead there are many powers, many nodes. Rather than uniform blocs, looser coalitions will form around specific issues. Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia are in discussions about conducting joint counter-piracy efforts in the South China Sea. The ASEAN countries could deepen their cooperation on counter-terrorism. And where their interests dovetail, such as on climate change, the US and China will work together.

States that will succeed in this flexi-nodal world will be those that are flexible and adaptable; those that have a diverse policy-making toolbox and are able and willing to form new and varied partnerships with actors both inside and outside the region. They will need to be able to harness local non-state actors such as businesses, NGOs and broader civil society.

Unfortunately, seeing the region as having a more complex and diffuse power distribution is not the analytical framework used by most policymakers. Most in the U.S., China and the region, succumb to the simpler, but inaccurate, bipolar vision. Xi's visit to the U.S. may only strengthen this interpretation. This is dangerous. Not only will it lead to bad policy-making, but in driving an 'us vs. them' zero-sum mentality, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Xenia Wickett is the U.S. Project Director at Chatham House. She is the co-author of a forthcoming report, The Asia-Pacific Power Balance: Beyond the US-China Narrative.