Whether Beijing is ready or not, China-US competition has been unfolding in all realms, from economics to diplomacy and security. For each country, the competition’s prospects and outcomes will depend on both domestic and foreign policy. For China, the former consists of managing its own affairs well, accelerating internal reforms and opening up, forging maximum domestic solidarity while rationally distributing resources at home, so as to enhance its own strength; the latter involves international legitimacy, i.e. how to better integrate its own development with the primary needs of other nations, and of the broader international community, so as to win maximum support.
The just-concluded 18th Shangri-La Dialogue was an important test of Chinese and US international influences. Without any intentional coordination, more than 600 of the participants focused on China-US competition—all the keynote speeches and panel discussions were centered around the topic. In general, the US was far less welcome than in the past, with some of its proposals getting a frosty reception; while China appeared far less intimidating as it used to be, and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and multiple ASEAN defense ministers advocated adapting to China’s rise. Chinese and US influences in the Asia-Pacific may not be in a zero-sum game, but undoubtedly the US footprint is declining, while China’s is on the rise, which reflects a change in public opinion across the region.
For some time, China has actively promoted the Belt and Road Initiative, constantly improved its cooperative outreach, and delivered practical benefits to all countries in the area; China and ASEAN nations have accelerated consultations on the South China Sea COD, enhanced pragmatic maritime cooperation and joint development, thus effectively stabilizing conditions in the South China Sea; China has also strengthened its good-neighbor diplomacy, actively managed policy disputes and diverging interests, and broadly improved relations with neighboring countries. In contrast, the Trump administration has adhered to its “America First” doctrine, withdrawn from international institutions willy-nilly and wielded its tariff stick, seriously damaging the interests of most Asia-Pacific countries. Meanwhile, the US has backed the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy proposed by Japan, which lacks substance beyond attempting to contain China, and thus received limited support. Against such a backdrop, people are more suspicious of the US, and expect more from China.
Of course, this shift is just beginning. There still is a long way for China to go to win respect and endorsement from the majority of countries in the Asia-Pacific.
Competition is unavoidable for China and the US, but different approaches to this contest will involve utterly different processes and outcomes. If any party seeks to bring other nations in the region onto its own bandwagon by pursuing hegemony in the region, it will inevitably lose public support; if the two compete to better serve regional wellbeing, they will surely receive greater endorsement, because countries in the region welcome such mutually beneficial competition. China has made its choice at the macro level, but it will need to follow through with steady implementation.
For a growing global power, influence comes along with responsibilities. While realizing its own interests, China must show due respect for the interests and concerns of other countries, including the US, strive to explore inclusive solutions, create conditions that other nations tolerate, and make policy adjustments, while leading the formulation of an open, inclusive regional order on such a basis. China has put forward many fine proposals at the philosophical level, such as the idea of a “community of shared future for mankind.” China’s future task is to implement these inclusive ideas in relations with neighboring countries and build a new regional order. China may need to come up with some corresponding theoretical systems and action plans at the intermediate level. As a big country, China also needs to provide security guarantees or security goods on both the material and psychological level. China must present its own reasonable solutions to all kinds of regional hotspot issues (whether or not they involve its immediate interests), and make active efforts to present public goods such as order, stable mechanisms, and norms for Asia-Pacific security.
The Shangri-La Dialogue is certainly an important platform for countries to elaborate their own policies and proposals and to win international influence. At such an event, it’s important to align words with deeds, or credibility is out of the question. Since it’s almost a consensus among all participating parties to build a “rules-based order” in the region, exactly what rules should they be? The Chinese side should also make further clarifications in this regard, and come up with its own understanding and position regarding specific rules.
At the operational level, the Chinese side also needs to be keenly aware that though China and the US play very important roles at the Shangri-La Dialogue, it is not a platform just for the two major powers; other nations’ interests and demands deserve due attention. As Chinese influence grows, the outside world will expect more from China. As it proceeds to clarify Chinese policies, tell Chinese stories well, and handle the China-US relationship in a rational manner, Beijing also should present sensible ideas and proposals that elaborate its stance on hotspot issues, rules, and norms, as well as order and directions, while at the same time give voice to neighboring countries. At multilateral venues, narratives centered around the entire region are obviously more acceptable to all parties invovle than those centered around oneself. The same argument may sound completely different when articulated from different perspectives.