Saturday, July 19, 2014

Assertive China a boon to US image

Jeremy Au Yong
The Straits Times
Publication Date : 18-07-2014

A survey on global perceptions of the United States and China this week affirmed what many observers had already guessed - that the increasingly assertive behaviour from Beijing over the past year has been a boon to the US image.

But while this presents a good opportunity for the US to push forward with its Pacific strategy, Washington pundits say the new Pew Research survey also makes clear that the path forward for the US is a tricky one.

The region, they say, is a jumble of mixed strategic interests outlined, for instance, by the fact that China maintains a favourable rating in the same neighbourhood most worried about military conflict with it. 

"I think there is little doubt that China's assertiveness, especially its resort to maritime coercion, is magnifying the attraction of America to some regional countries, including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and perhaps India," said Dr Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Centre for a New American Security.

"But I also think many Asian countries are looking at the US in a more favourable light because of reasons other than China. 

"For instance, South Korea enjoys improving relations with China yet most of its citizens polled understand the strategic importance of the alliance with the US."

Across 10 Asian countries polled about China, half or more of respondents in nine said they were concerned that territorial disputes would lead to a military conflict with China. 

Among China's closest neighbours - Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines - that proportion is well over 80 per cent.

By the same token, all but one of the Asian countries - Pakistan - had a positive view of the US. In most instances, the proportions of those with pro-US views have been increasing since 2000.

Yet, the majorities in six Asian countries also maintain a positive view of China, including Malaysia, which has a competing territorial claim with Beijing in the South China Sea.

Dr Denny Roy, senior fellow with the East-West Centre, said the strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific is complicated by China's growing economic clout: 

"America is the preferred security partner but China is the top economic partner (in the region). China is already using that economic leverage to its own strategic advantage, sending the message that countries disregarding China's political preferences will be punished economically." 

There are other complications as well. Indonesian respondents of the survey - unlike those in any other place - named the US as both its top ally and top threat. 

Dr Roy put it this way: "On the one hand, Indonesia is happy to have US influence in the region as a counterbalance to China. On the other hand, many Indonesians buy into the canard that the US is anti-Muslim, or believe anti-US conspiracy theories." 

The challenge for the US in a receptive Asia is to find a "balance between commitments and resources, and between rival audiences".

Dr Cronin similarly said the US needs to treat its rebalance as a comprehensive long-term exercise, boosting integration in everything from trade to culture.

The one finding that had observers most worried was the sizeable chunk of public opinion fretting over a potential military conflict. That could, observers said, suggest that the people are preparing themselves mentally, at least, for a showdown, even if public opinion may not match those of their political leaders.

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