Can America match China’s long game in Asia?

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The Yangshan container port in Shanghai. For most Asian countries, China is their largest trade partner, giving Beijing increased influence over the region.

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When China applied the other day to join a regional free trade pact that Washington had championed, Beijing knew it would not be allowed in anytime soon; the requirements for membership are too tough.

But the application was more a piece of performance art than a diplomatic move. It was designed to draw attention to the fact that Washington is no longer part of the pact it had promoted because Donald Trump pulled America out of the deal.

Why We Wrote This

In the competition for influence over China’s neighbors, U.S. democracy helps, but it will not be enough. Washington will have to persuade its allies that America is ready for the long haul on trade and security.

The underlying message from China to democracies in its neighborhood? You are betting on the wrong horse. We are your main trading partner, and though America looks as if it has your back, can you really rely on its staying power?

Things are not going so well in the short term for Beijing, which has been acting rough on the world stage. But in the long run, China has good grounds for its self-confidence. What it will come down to, though, in the years ahead is whose worldview, Beijing’s or Washington’s, will strike home with America’s Pacific allies. To prevail in that contest, the U.S. will have to show staying power on the security front, and at the trade table.

It was less a case of traditional diplomacy than a piece of performance art. The aim was not to secure any immediate effect, but to send a message with far longer-term impact.

But it was China’s most significant retort to Washington’s moves last week to beef up its alliances in the Asia-Pacific region – themselves an answer to Beijing’s growing ambitions there. And as a signpost for how this tug of war is likely to play out, it was a good deal more instructive than Chinese officials’ public denunciation of the American initiative.

China’s move also highlighted the dramatically different timelines on which Washington and Beijing are calculating their increasingly tense and complex relationship. And it played to an audience both superpowers are keen to sway: America’s traditional democratic allies.  

Why We Wrote This

In the competition for influence over China’s neighbors, U.S. democracy helps, but it will not be enough. Washington will have to persuade its allies that America is ready for the long haul on trade and security.

What did Beijing do? It applied to join the free trade pact among market economies bordering the Pacific known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – an agreement that Washington championed during President Barack Obama’s administration as a counterweight to Chinese economic influence.

The point wasn’t actually to join. China knows it stands no chance of being accepted anytime soon, if only because of the pact’s economic, social, and political benchmarks. They range from curbs on intellectual property theft, protectionism, and slave labor to the right to independent trade unions.  

Yet the Chinese overture was meant to highlight another salient fact about the bloc: that this largely American creation was now without America, because President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. just days after taking office in January 2017.

China’s intended message to its Asian neighbors: You’re betting on the wrong horse. We are the region’s dominant economy and your main trade partner. America may look as if it has your back. But can you really rely on its staying power? Indeed, given the division and gridlock besetting U.S. politics, can you even rely on the staying power of American democracy?

For President Joe Biden, delivering a yes to both those questions has been a priority from day one, and the challenge has grown increasingly urgent in recent weeks. At home, he has framed his drive to get his major spending bills through Congress not just as an election promise, but as a demonstration that “democracy works.”

Internationally, the contest he’s emphasized between “democracy” and “autocracy” will play out most sharply between China and its Pacific neighbors. They are the focus of this month’s landmark deal to sell U.S. nuclear submarines to Australia; last week’s decision to strengthen Washington’s so-called Quad alliance with Australia, Japan, and India; as well as the creation of a new task force for China and the Indo-Pacific at the Defense Department.

Yet if Washington’s approach might be called laser-focused, China is strategizing through binoculars.

Yes, the close-up view isn’t great: Things don’t seem to be going Beijing’s way. Its approach to the world has shifted from self-confidence to outright truculence – with the mass incarceration of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, the crackdown in Hong Kong, military overflights around Taiwan, and the “wolf warrior” aggressiveness of its overseas diplomats. That has strengthened Mr. Biden’s hand in his bid to convince fellow democracies and free-market economies to make common cause to constrain Chinese influence.

Yet through their binoculars, China’s leaders see reason for optimism.

Their view is that China is the world’s rising 21st -century power, while the U.S. and other Western democracies are in inexorable decline.

That’s partly rhetoric. But China’s rapid economic expansion and its accelerated investment in artificial intelligence and other innovations are real. So, too, is its confidence about the shifting balance of power, one reason it felt it could shrug off international fallout over Xinjiang or Hong Kong.

Still, what will matter most in the years ahead, both Washington and Beijing know, is whose worldview strikes home with America’s allies in the Pacific.

For President Biden, there’s good news and bad as he ratchets up U.S. commitments to allies around China.

The good news is that, despite the partisan battles increasingly dominating American politics, both major parties agree on a more assertive line toward Beijing.

But there are also limits to that consensus, which China has deliberately highlighted with its sudden show of interest in the TPP.

Early in his administration, Mr. Obama told Australia’s parliament that the U.S. saw itself as a Pacific power and was “here to stay.” But he was talking about security commitments.

When it came to trade, both Republicans and anti-free-trade Democrats made the TPP a hard sell in Washington. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the projected pact became especially contentious, and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton also began backing away from it.

Interestingly, Mr. Biden has yet to talk of rejoining the bloc, though it’s still very much alive as the renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.

He appears to see the pact as part of a separate domestic political battle over trade, rather than as another mechanism binding America more tightly into the Asia-Pacific region.

In China’s eyes, however, and, it hopes, in those of America’s allies too, that reluctance raises a wider, long-term doubt: whether the Americans are indeed “here to stay.”

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