Changing of guard?

Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to London last month was more than just a classic display of post-imperial pomp. It marked an important new phase in the way the British, and indeed many Europeans, see Asia and their role in the region.

Suddenly, it seems, they are accommodating themselves to the idea of China stepping forward as a regional leader. And that means they are also coming to accept that the US will be stepping back.

This is a big shift. Over the past 10 to 15 years, European countries like Britain have started to take an interest in Asia's strategic affairs again.

Long after they withdrew from the region at the height of the Cold War, they started to see a renewed strategic role for themselves in the world's fastest-growing region.

Their thinking about this was pretty straightforward. Peace and stability in Asia were important to Europe, and US leadership was the key to peace and stability, therefore responsible Europeans thought it natural that they would support the United States in Asia if it ever faced a serious challenge.

Also, European leaders were happy to see themselves as champions of human rights and democracy against authoritarian regimes like China's.

Some more ambitious Europeans - the French and the British in particular - were even prepared to hint that they would be willing and able to send their armed forces to fight alongside the US in Asia if a challenge to America's position ever reached the point of armed confrontation.

Even if the challenger was a country as powerful as China. Some argued that this was just the kind of thing these countries had built their expensive aircraft carriers to do.

More broadly, this was part of a widely-shared vision of the transatlantic Western alliance in the post-Cold War era. With Europe united and at peace, Washington's European allies would devote themselves to supporting the US-led global order wherever it faced a challenge, no matter how far from home.

"Out of area or out of business" became for a while Nato's slogan. And of course the Americans welcomed this.

Of course these bold new ideas about a revived strategic role in Asia were easy to entertain as long as the US' place in the region seemed secure from any serious challenge, and China was seen to have little choice but to deal with Europeans on their terms.

But that is not how things have turned out. European countries like Britain are now asking themselves whether they are really interested in taking the US' side in an escalating power struggle over who exercises strategic leadership in Asia. And the answer is clearly "no".

This was signalled as plainly as one could imagine by the contrast between President Xi's frosty visit to Washington in late September and his warm reception in London only a month later, just as the US was launching its "freedom of navigation" challenge to China in the South China Sea.

British Prime Minister David Cameron could not have been more effusive in his welcome to Mr Xi, clearly showing that for London, the cultivation of the relationship with Beijing is more important than showing solidarity with Washington.

Before this, of course, we had seen Britain's decision earlier this year to defy the US and join China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and Mr Cameron's spectacular visit to Beijing in 2013, where he atoned for an earlier meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama that had angered China's leaders with one of the more abject U-turns in recent diplomatic history.

Several factors are driving this new "realism" in the attitudes of countries like Britain to events in Asia. The most obvious is the still rapidly-growing economic weight of China and the deft way Chinese leaders use the resulting commercial opportunities to exert irresistible diplomatic leverage. 

It has become clear that Europeans must deal with China on China's terms if they don't want to miss out.

China's economic rise might be slowing down, but it remains the most promising new source of economic opportunities for counties throughout Europe, and the prospects are made all the more alluring when packaged in such bold concepts as President Xi's "One Belt One Road" initiative.

But economics is not the only factor that is changing minds in London and elsewhere. Whereas even a couple of years ago, the possibility of serious strategic rivalry between the US and China seemed reassuringly remote, today it is all too real. They can see that the risk of a serious US-China clash is plainly growing.

Moreover they are not sure the US is necessarily handling this risk well. Like everyone else, Europeans worry that China is becoming too assertive, but they also worry that the US reaction - for example over maritime issues is both counterproductively provocative and seemingly ineffectual.

And those, like Britain, which might once have imagined a military role for themselves in supporting the US in Asia are waking up to the reality of China's growing naval and air power.

It is unlikely that anyone in Whitehall would want to send a British aircraft carrier against Chinese forces that now pose such a threat even to America's most capable ships.

At the same time, Europeans are keenly aware of major strategic worries closer to home. Russia's attempt to redraw the post-Cold War map of Eastern Europe has created the kind of challenge to the whole European order that many Europeans have believed they would never see again.

No one believes Nato members have no role to play in their own European area. And on top of that is the challenge of terrorism.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, even the British seem to be rethinking their role as the US' global helper.

Britain's post-imperial image of itself as a major power with a global role in close support of the US seems never to have recovered from the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan. Across the political spectrum, British leaders and voters seem ready to embrace a post-post imperial role which is as yet undefined, but which clearly does not extend to major power confrontations in Asia.

And that means they are coming to accept the idea that China will most likely start to replace the US as Asia's primary power.

All this has interesting and important implications for the Europeans themselves, and the sense of identity of people like the British and the French. But it also has big implications for Asia, and especially for the US' role in the region.

Most Americans readily assume that in standing up to China they stand at the head of a global coalition of like-minded countries, willing to follow their lead in defending the rules-based global order against challengers like China.

As they watched President Xi ride around London in a gold coach, they must have started to wonder whether this is any longer true. And the more they think about that, the closer must come the point at which they wonder what they, too, are doing in Asia.

If the Europeans are happy for China to play a bigger role in Asia, and the US to play a smaller one, Americans might come to ask themselves some hard questions.

The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

This article was first published on Nov 24, 2015.
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