It has been an extraordinarily frantic period for the Asia Pacific of late. At the beginning of last week, US President Joe Biden launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) for Prosperity, with seven out of 10 Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) members signed up, plus Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. The next day, the leaders of the Quad – the US, India, Japan and Australia – had a meeting, also in Tokyo, and issued a comprehensive joint statement.
Further south, all eyes were on Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who began a 10-day “grand tour” of the Pacific on Wednesday. Having already signed an agreement with the Solomon Islands, Mr Wang added another bilateral with Samoa on Saturday, and hopped over to Fiji to host a meeting of 10 nations’ foreign ministers on Monday.
Last Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a speech titled “The Administration’s Approach to the People’s Republic of China” in Washington, an event so hotly anticipated that I gather there were some unseemly arguments about who should be allowed to sit in the front rows.
And as a backdrop to all of the above, there has been frenzied discussion in academic and policy circles over Mr Biden’s answer at a news conference to the question: “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?" He replied: “Yes. That's the commitment we made.” Within moments, shockwaves were felt around the globe that Mr Biden appeared to have ended the decades-long policy of “strategic ambiguity”, whereby the US supplied the island with arms but made no formal commitment to defend it – only for the White House to send out a quick clarification saying “as the President said, our policy has not changed”.
In calmer times, it could be that most of the above might appear unexceptional, or even good news. Don’t the nations of the Asia Pacific want more multilateral agreements? Why shouldn’t the Biden administration outline its approach to the world’s other superpower? (The exception, of course, would be Taiwan. The question makes clear that the island is a potential touchpoint for conflict between the US and China.)
But the events of the last week or so have taken place in an atmosphere of unprecedented rivalry and hostility. The idea that China might sign a new deal at the meeting with Pacific states was greeted with hysteria by Australian politicians, while the US State Department warned of “shadowy, vague deals with little transparency” with Beijing. A consensus couldn’t be reached at the event, but Mr Wang was clearly undaunted, continuing his tour, adding other bilateral agreements and promising a forthcoming paper on further co-operation proposals.
We appear to be in a situation in which “each side assumes the other has the worst intentions", Michael Green of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies told the Hong Kong daily South China Morning Post, which also quoted Susan Thornton, a former US acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, as saying: “People are worried about an accident because everyone’s on such a hair trigger.”
By an accident, Ms Thornton meant an unintended military escalation. But the verbal exchanges have already become exceptionally bellicose. Mr Blinken had a long list of accusations to level at China in his speech last week, including “undermining peace and security” and “breaking trade rules”, and he alleged “the ruling Chinese Communist Party has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad".
It is not entirely surprising that China’s foreign ministry hit back, saying Mr Blinken was “essentially spreading disinformation”, “smearing China’s domestic and foreign policy”, and trying to “contain and suppress China’s development and uphold US hegemony". The spokesman added: “The US always places its domestic law above international law and follows international rules selectively,” which was actually a perfectly fair comment.
It was all very well for Mr Blinken to end his speech by saying: “There’s no reason why our great nations cannot coexist peacefully, and share in and contribute to human progress together.” But many of the previous paragraphs did not exactly pave the way for peaceful coexistence – unless he expects Beijing to meekly accept a public berating and change what Mr Blinken views as its errant ways.
A voice of sanity was provided last week by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. At the Nikkei International Conference on the Future of Asia in Tokyo, Mr Lee took a statesman-like line and was careful to praise the contributions and the legitimate aspirations of all. “The US has provided the framework for peace and stability for the region since the end of the Second World War. Even as the strategic balance shifts, the US still retains this essential role, which no other country can take over,” he said, making a statement many other leaders might privately echo, but will be glad Mr Lee said for them instead.
At the same time, he also said that “China’s economic influence in Asia is large and growing. This is a natural and positive consequence of China’s continuing growth and development. It has benefited the region immensely", and others must accommodate its “growing influence and legitimate interests”.
This was not just far more sensible. It reflects the reality on the ground that states in the region have to deal with the “inescapable neighbour”. Referring to the conflict in Europe, Mr Lee said that “the stakes are high” in Asia, too. “Countries must be willing to show restraint, accept differences and live with compromises.” Again, all exactly right, in my opinion.
But he put his finger on the real route forward at another point: “Countries with stakes in one another’s economic success have greater incentive to work together and to overcome problems between them.” In which case, there should be no arguments about which is better, IPEF or Mr Wang’s bilaterals, RCEP or CPTPP (to name two other big trade pacts). Let a mountain of agreements be built in the Asia Pacific, so that the US and China can have, as Mr Lee put it, “overlapping circles of friends, and countries find it possible to have friends on both sides".
Step back from the recent frenzies, and it becomes clear that that is the only solution. Exaggerated suspicions of the other side must not stop it being so.