Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still file image. (Handout/Reuters)
Opinion writer

In January 2007, not long after George W. Bush announced his surge of troops into Iraq, I happened to be having lunch with a Chinese friend who is a well-connected member of the Communist Party. I asked him how the news was being received in Beijing. He replied in words to the effect of: “We would hope that you would send the entire American Army into Iraq and stay for another 10 years. Meanwhile, we will keep building up our economy.” I thought of that story this week while traveling in Southeast Asia. As the Islamic State, Iran and Greece occupy the attention of the Western world, China marches forward, except now it is not just building its economy but also a new geopolitics in Asia.

Recently released satellite photos show that China has almost completed an airstrip on one of the many artificial islands it has created in the Spratly archipelago over the past year and a half. Its actions in the area are intended to consolidate its claims to 90 percent of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in trade flows every year. (These claims are disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.)

President Xi Jinping has marked a break with his predecessors in openly embracing an activist foreign policy, speaking about the “Asia-Pacific dream” and announcing ventures such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the “Maritime Silk Road.” Behind this rhetoric is an avalanche of cash. Scholar David Shambaugh points out that if you add up China’s promised investments in all of these regional ventures, the total is $1.41 trillion. The Marshall Plan, by comparison, cost $103 billion in today’s dollars.

A senior Southeast Asian diplomat explained to me that China is using money and pressure to “suborn” countries in the region. He pointed out that aid is often carefully targeted, so that money to Malaysia, for example, is directed specifically to the state of Pahang, the political base of the prime minister. “In Myanmar and Thailand, [the Chinese] make sure the generals get their share of the contracts,” he said. In smaller countries such as Cambodia and Laos, Chinese money dominates the economy.

Beijing is also enlarging its military options, with the Spratly reclamation and a significant expansion of the country’s land-based missile systems. In addition, Beijing has been quietly damming rivers that flow across its borders — from the Mekong to the Brahmaputra — which would give it the ability in a crisis to cut water supplies to Cambodia and India, respectively.

Politicians in Singapore told me that Beijing has even begun to reach out to local Singaporeans of Chinese descent and to nudge the city-state’s foreign policy — which remains staunchly allied to the United States — in a more pro-Chinese direction. “Diplomats from the Chinese embassy contact my Chinese constituents and brief them,” one politician told me. “They sponsor all-expenses paid trips to China for young Chinese Singaporeans. They are active, engaged and smart.”

And how do diplomats in Southeast Asia see the United States? As distracted and largely absent. The ones I spoke with credit the Obama administration with the right basic strategy in its “pivot” to Asia, but they fault it for little follow-up and poor implementation. They have been heartened by the moves forward in Congress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement but worry that it has taken too long in the face of relentless Chinese advances.

“[National security adviser] Susan Rice doesn’t seem to know much or care about Asia; [Secretary of State] John Kerry was distracted by his quest for Middle East peace; the president has canceled trips to Asia,” one diplomat said to me. “Finally, with [Defense Secretary] Ash Carter, we have a strategist at the Pentagon, and it has already made a difference. The Chinese are more cautious.”

What makes dealing with China’s growing influence in Asia especially tricky is that a good part of it is inevitable and could be benign. China is the largest trading partner of almost all Asian economies as well as Australia. Its increased involvement in the region could be a win-win. But it also produces great anxieties about political domination. Countries here are looking to the United States to deter China yet engage it. They do not want to upset the basic atmosphere of trade, commerce and comity that has allowed many Asian countries to boom.

“What we want from Washington is not simply countermeasures, but sophisticated, nuanced and persistent diplomacy,” says Kishore Mahbubani, former foreign secretary of Singapore. The United States was “able to do this during the Cold War, when you were in competition with the Soviet Union. You had to listen to locals, woo countries and above all be deeply, continuously engaged. I don’t see that anymore.”

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