Coping with changes
China must correctly assess how US policy is influencing the security situation in its neighboring areas
Strategic competition between China and the United States has intensified since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, resulting in China's neighbors adjusting their policies toward China and the security situation in China's neighborhood undergoing changes.
The US' Indo-Pacific strategy is giving shape to alliances and partnerships to contain China's development.
Over the past few years, the US strategy has been constantly upgrading and expanding, with the Quad - an informal strategic grouping of the US, India, Australia and Japan - as its main coordination platform.
To create an extended version of the Quad framework, in March 2020 the US invited New Zealand, the Republic of Korea and Vietnam to participate in a vice-ministerial level video conference and since then, the group has been holding weekly meetings, establishing a "Quad plus" framework. The Quad is also trying to rope in Indonesia to make up for the lack of Association of Southeast Asian Nations members in the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy.
Meanwhile, if former US president Donald Trump's cajoling of Asian allies to invest more in national security and defense left them feeling bullied and "abandoned", the US' response to the pandemic has further deepened their concerns about a reduced US role in the world and in Asia. Therefore, some countries in the areas surrounding China are joining hands to forge a mutual assistance system independent of the US.
On June 4, 2020, India and Australia signed the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement to increase military interoperability through defense exercises between the two countries.
In the meantime, Japan, Australia and India are establishing a mutual support system for defense logistics.
Since the mid-1990s, a regional cooperation framework with ASEAN centrality as the pillar has emerged in East Asia. However, ASEAN's role is facing challenges.
The world's major powers are prone to dealing with one ASEAN member state or several member states, instead of dealing with ASEAN as a whole. The intensifying competition between the world's major powers in the region has undercut ASEAN's capacity to solve regional political-security issues.
At the same time, the regional supply chains are also undergoing massive adjustment. The US can hardly replace China as the world's largest goods supplier. Amid the pandemic, ASEAN member states have pledged to strengthen supply chain connectivity with China to maintain regional supply chain and industrial chain stability.
As China signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement in November 2020 with 10 ASEAN member states plus Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia and New Zealand, the most diverse membership and the greatest development potential is gradually taking shape.
If US President Joe Biden's policies create some subtle changes in the situation in the areas surrounding China, the latter should address them from the following aspects.
First, it should objectively analyze the influence of US policy on its neighborhood diplomacy.
The intensifying China-US strategic competition is the direct reason for the changes in China's neighborhood situation. The deep-seated reason, however, is that the relative strengths of the world's two largest economies are undergoing fast and profound changes that could reshape existing regional rules and frameworks.
The future regional landscape depends greatly on whether China and the US can forge a stable relationship in which they compete without confrontation.
The US has been trying to sabotage China's relations with its neighbors. However, Washington's old trick is not working any more. China's battle against the novel coronavirus has demonstrated the strengths of its socialist system and traditional Chinese culture.
Over the past seven decades, the US leadership's role on the global stage has originated from three aspects - the legitimacy of its domestic governance, the global public goods it provides, and its capability and willingness to lead and coordinate global crisis response efforts. However, the US has failed in all three aspects in the face of the pandemic.
The US-promoted notion of "decoupling "from the Chinese economy is impossible for many countries to do. Therefore, China should accurately analyze the US influence in its neighborhood.
Second, China should accurately analyze its neighboring countries' tactics and strategies in the face of China-US strategic competition.
Previous analyses have exaggerated US influence. In fact, India, Japan and Australia derive their anti-China drive partly from their desire to collaborate with the US and partly from their own strategies toward China.
Therefore, China should analyze the situation case by case. For instance, different ASEAN countries have different policies toward China. Although Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore are military allies of the US, the possibility of their cooperating deeply with the US against China is decreasing. The reduced US leading role on the global stage has made its strategic promises more unreliable. Southeastern nations' development relies on an open global economic system. They are most reluctant to pick sides in the strategic competition between the major powers.
In 2020, China and ASEAN for the first time became each other's largest partner, with bilateral trade up nearly 7 percent, defying the gloomy picture of a pandemic-blighted world. With the signing of the RCEP agreement, the economic and industrial ties between the two sides are bound to become closer.
The world today is undergoing profound changes unseen in a century. The changing situation in the areas surrounding China spells both crises and opportunities for China. China should foster new opportunities amid challenges and make new advances amid changes by more accurately analyzing the US factor and the strategies of regional powers, better understanding neighboring countries' attitudes toward China, and reinforcing China's strategic planning capability and strategy application capability.
The author is a professor at the Institute of International Studies in Fudan University.