The Sydney Morning Herald

By Tom Switzer

For decades, American strategic dominance has ensured peace and prosperity in Asia. So alarm bells should ring when regional allies see US influence waning amid the expanding power of China.

When President Barack Obama missed a pair of Asian summits last October, serious doubts surfaced about his administration's signature foreign-policy initiative: the ''pivot'' that would rebalance US attention and resources away from the Middle East and towards the region.

It was fair enough that the government shutdown demanded his attention at home. It's just that, as many Asian analysts observed, if the US can't keep its own house in order, how can it keep the peace in Asia? Moreover, there are widespread fears about China's increasingly belligerent military actions in the East and South China seas.

In recent years, the mainland has had territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines. In November, Beijing announced the new defence zone over the islands named Senkaku (Japanese) or Diaoyu (Chinese), which belong to Japan but are claimed by China.

Add to this China's mounting investments in south-east Asia, including the creation of an infrastructure bank and trade bloc to rival Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership, and it's no wonder the state-run news agency Xinhua imagines ''building a de-Americanised world''.

But talk of Chinese hegemony is premature, and reports of America's retreat are greatly exaggerated. Take Obama's decision to fly B-2 and B-52 bombers over Korea and the disputed islands in the East China Sea in March and November, respectively. It sent the right signal to Pyongyang and Beijing: intimidation invites a show of force. It also demonstrated Washington's indispensable leadership role in the region. So, too, did the response to last November's typhoon in the Philippines that left 4 million homeless and hungry. Not only did the US send an aircraft carrier and hundreds of marines to distribute food and water to remote areas but it also pledged $22 million in assistance. By contrast, the Chinese originally pledged only $100,000, less than the donation by furniture franchise Ikea!

We all know about the US marines' rotational presence in Darwin, but Australia is hardly alone in enhancing security ties with Washington. The neighbourhood, with rare exceptions, seeks greater US engagement in the face of China's rising power.

Last week Japan signed a deal to relocate the US air base on the strategically significant island of Okinawa. Vietnam, America's Cold War foe, is clamouring for US security guarantees, and the Philippines, a former US colony, has been negotiating with the very navy it kicked out of Subic Bay two decades ago.

Obama's strategy is to keep the US militarily pre-eminent, even as defence spending falls from its post-September 11 heights and polls show Americans are tired of the world. The goal is to remain strong enough, and sufficiently engaged in the region, so that no other nation can upset the stability that has kept the long peace.

The danger is Obama's stance could push an insecure China into an anti-foreign posture that has often characterised that nation since its defeat in the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century. Accidents or miscalculations could spiral into dangerous confrontation. It's not just Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating, but high-profile US Republicans Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft who share that view.

If China's economy continues to grow at an impressive rate over the next few decades, Beijing could try to push the US out of Asia, just as Washington pushed the European great powers out of the Western hemisphere in the 19th century.

That sounds far-fetched today, and in the event of a severe economic downturn China would be so focused on holding together a disparate people it is unlikely to act aggressively abroad.

But diplomatic history shows that a rising state's definition of vital interests grows as its power increases. Over time, it attempts to court neighbours with economic inducements and use its growing military muscle to assert a sphere of influence and keep out foreign forces that are invariably seen as a potential security threat.

In a perceptive article in the forthcoming National Interest (based on a speech in, of all places, Taiwan last month), eminent Chicago University political scientist John Mearsheimer asks: ''Why should we expect China to act any differently than the US did [in the 19th century]? Are Chinese leaders more principled than American leaders? More ethical? Are they less nationalistic? Less concerned about their survival?'' They are none of those things, warns Mearsheimer, which is why Beijing is likely to impose its will and leadership across the region, ensuring an intense security competition with the US. For now, China is constrained by Asia's balance of power, which is clearly stacked in America's favour, but the Chinese are known for taking the long view. When Kissinger once asked Zhou Enlai whether the French Revolution of 1789 had benefited humanity, Zhou replied: ''It's too early to tell.'' Whether the regional power equation works to China's advantage in coming decades has a claim to be the question of our time. It is also a question of immense importance to Australia.

This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald