According to Jamil Anderlini in the Financial Times, rumors of America’s decline in Asia have been greatly exaggerated. Despite dramatic overtures to Beijing from the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand, Anderlini argues, the real balance of power has hardly changed:
In fact, as long as Washington remains a staunch proponent of peace and free trade in the region, these countries are even more likely to choose America over China thanks to a crucial economic shift that is under way.
Until recently, Chinese imports from the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations had increased by an average of more than 20 per cent a year for more than a decade. Many assumed this magnetic pull would draw all regional countries into China’s orbit and force them to accommodate Beijing’s wishes.
But that attraction is growing weaker. China’s imports from Asean grew by just 4.4 per cent in 2014 and last year they fell 6.5 per cent, according to official Chinese statistics. In the first nine months of this year, imports from Asean fell a further 5.3 per cent.
Anderlini sees the trend of declining imports continuing into the future, as China seeks a consumption and services economy that is less dependent on inputs from its neighbors. Meanwhile, Beijing’s strict capital controls and devalued currency will restrict outbound investment, while the U.S. maintains an edge in soft power, leaving Beijing with “little to offer its neighbors besides tourists and threats.”
To be sure, China’s rise to economic hegemony is by no means inevitable, and the United States retains immense resources that it can use to appeal to Asian countries. The challenge lies in marshalling those resources effectively in service of a coherent strategy. The Obama Administration thought we could have it all, courting Asian allies with an appealing free trade agreement even as it criticized some of them (Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia) on human rights grounds. Now, with the TPP stalled and China offering economic deals with no human rights strings attached, it is easy to see why some Asian allies might look toward Beijing.
Perhaps these overtures are more rhetorical than substantive: as Anderlini notes, even the virulently anti-American Rodrigo Duterte has yet to cancel a single bilateral agreement with the U.S., suggesting that his bark is worse than his bite. Regardless of one’s assessment of the Asian balance of power, however, this is no time for complacency. China’s economic slowdown and volatility present an opportunity for Washington to reassert its influence in the region. It is crucial that the next administration seize that opportunity.