An Asian Security Standoff

An Asian Security Standoff

Mini Teaser: An intense security competition is under way in East Asia. Beijing and Washington must take care to ensure that this competition does not give way to entrenched bloody-mindedness or even outright violence.

by Author(s): Alan Dupont

BUT IF Pax Sinica lacks appeal and Pax Americana cannot endure in its current form, what kind of new order might emerge in East Asia that could maintain peace and accommodate the aspirations of all the region’s states? One possibility is a “Concert of Asia.” Drawing their inspiration from the post-Napoleonic accord of powers that controlled Europe for much of the nineteenth century, supporters of a Concert of Asia maintain that in the absence of a dominant state, a contemporary Asian version of the European concert holds out the best prospect for regional peace and stability. To be credible and enduring, however, only the strongest powers would be entitled to a seat at the table. The five obvious candidates are the United States, China, Japan, India and Indonesia.

One clear problem with this formulation is the dubious assumption that East Asia’s smaller nations would readily agree to have their individual or collective interests adjudicated by the large powers. This runs counter to the whole thrust of East Asian regionalism over the past two decades, with its emphasis on the empowerment of smaller states and the collective management of the region’s security problems. It also ignores the global diffusion of power that has accompanied what Fareed Zakaria calls the “rise of the rest.” Robust, medium-sized states are demanding a greater say in regional and international affairs, and they are not going to accept readily any return to a past of great-power dominance. It is also difficult to see the major powers agreeing to accept a stewardship role of the kind envisaged in a Concert of Asia. Japan is too weak; China is unwilling, and its political values are too different; India is preoccupied with its own problems; Indonesia’s geopolitical ambitions are confined to Southeast Asia; and the United States has neither the inclination nor the resources to take on an enhanced leadership role in Asia.

What of the argument that America should accept the inevitable and share power with China as an equal? Paralleling the G-2 would be an Asia-2, allowing Beijing and Washington to divide the region into spheres of influence in much the same way as the United States and the Soviet Union managed a politically bifurcated Europe during the early part of the Cold War. While superficially appealing because it holds out the prospect of a peaceful transition to a new international order, power sharing between the United States and China is unlikely to work for two reasons. First, no U.S. administration, regardless of its political complexion, would voluntarily relinquish power to China, just as China wouldn’t if the roles were reversed. Second, China’s new great-power status is hardly untrammeled. Nor is it guaranteed to last, for the country faces formidable environmental, resource, economic and demographic challenges, not to mention a rival United States that shows no sign of lapsing into terminal decline despite its current economic travails. Sooner than it thinks, Beijing may have to confront the prospect of a resurgent Washington determined to reassert its strategic interests.

The question, then, is: How can China and the United States ensure that healthy competition does not give way to an entrenched bloody-mindedness that aggravates existing insecurities and results in serious conflict? That may be difficult, if not impossible, should Beijing maintain its current political and military strategy in the western Pacific. Like any other state, China is entitled to modernize its armed forces and protect its legitimate security interests. But Beijing’s assertion of its territorial claims in the East and South China seas has been counterproductive—alienating neighbors, raising international concerns about China’s strategic ambitions and provoking hedging behavior in the region. China’s challenge to U.S. maritime power in East Asia strikes at a deeply held American conviction that continued naval dominance of the Pacific is not only critical to U.S. security but also to the nation’s standing as the preeminent global power, something that all but guarantees a countervailing military and political response.

At issue here is Beijing’s often harsh and uncompromising official rhetoric when dealing with sensitive political and sovereignty issues as well as the government’s willingness to accept and even sometimes foster nationalist sentiment at home, which is aggravating and complicating disputes with the United States and Japan. A more pluralistic, globally connected China would mean that foreign policy is no longer the exclusive preserve of the Standing Committee of the Politburo and the small policy elite that supports it in the Foreign Ministry and State Council. Nationalist sentiment expressed through chat rooms, blogging and Internet sites is complicating, and making less predictable, the management of Sino-U.S. and Sino-Japanese relations. Of course, no country is immune from the demonization of competitors, as attested by “Japan bashing” in the United States during the 1980s. But the incubus of extreme nationalism is having a particularly destabilizing effect in China, where sensationalist and emotive reporting, more often associated with Western tabloids, is making it difficult for Chinese leaders to avoid caricaturing rather than making nuanced assessments of U.S. intentions and capabilities. If Beijing is not yet ready for a free press, it must accept the responsibility for the outbursts of a controlled press.

America’s challenge, meanwhile, is to develop a more coherent China strategy that explicitly recognizes Beijing’s resource anxieties and corollary need to take on greater responsibility for the protection of sea-lanes in the western Pacific. What has been missing from many Western explanations of China’s more assertive recent behavior is recognition of the economic importance that Beijing attaches to this vital waterway, which is a major conduit for international trade and a rich repository for minerals and valuable marine life. By 2030, up to 80 percent of China’s oil and 50 percent of its gas will be imported by sea, through the Malacca Strait—a classic maritime choke point due to the narrowness and shallowness of its approaches, the number of ships that pass through it daily, and the Strait’s vulnerability to interdiction or environmental blockage.

The rate of growth in China’s energy imports has few historical parallels, if any. In less than twenty years, the country has moved from a net exporter to importing more than 55 percent of its oil, with crude-oil imports increasing by a staggering 17.5 percent in 2010 alone. This resource vulnerability weighs heavily on the minds of Chinese decision makers who, in addition to worrying about terrorism, piracy and environmental disruptions to their energy supplies, are acutely aware that their major competitor exercises effective naval control over the Malacca Strait and most of the western Pacific. Invoking the so-called Malacca dilemma, President Hu Jintao first gave voice to these anxieties in 2005, and his officials have made it clear since that China is no longer prepared to outsource sea-lane security in the western Pacific to the U.S. Navy. Thus, whether the United States and Japan like it or not, Chinese naval pennants will be sighted far more frequently in the western Pacific and as far south as the Malacca Strait. This is a natural consequence of China’s growing economic and strategic weight, just as the emergence of the U.S. Navy heralded the rise of the United States as a major power at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Another danger point lies in various inconsistencies in U.S. behavior and approaches to China. Over the past two decades, U.S. China policy has been a confusing mix of engagement, partnership, competition, hedging and lectures on China’s internal political structure. With resentment and hostility toward Beijing on the rise, American administrations face the challenge of ensuring that China does not become a whipping boy for U.S. domestic-policy failings or replace the Soviet Union as the new strategic bogeyman. Any attempt to demonize China would be counterproductive to U.S. strategic interests in East Asia. It would undercut moderates in the Chinese leadership and encourage a reciprocal response that would aggravate existing tensions.

HOW THE United States and China manage their relationship will have strategic implications extending well beyond East Asia. As competition increases, preventing conflicts from escalating will not be easy. This isn’t necessarily because Beijing seeks territorial expansion, has become a revisionist power or has serious differences with Washington over values. Presumably, these can be managed. The real danger is that China’s resource vulnerabilities, sense of entitlement and determination to restore its historically dominant position in East Asia will deepen regional anxieties about Chinese behavior and trigger a countervailing response from the United States and Japan. This could pose a contemporary expression of the classic security dilemma articulated a half century ago by the eminent American international-relations theorist Kenneth Waltz: in seeking to enhance their own security by building a strong military, large states often increase everyone else’s insecurity because this military force is frequently regarded as a potential threat rather than as a reasonable, defensive measure.

Already, China’s attempt to test Washington’s resolve in the western Pacific by “periphery probing” has resulted in a predictably vigorous U.S. response. The U.S. Navy and Air Force are working on plans to suppress and blind China’s potent missile capabilities by means of an emerging “air-sea battle” strategy, which is rapidly gaining political traction in Washington. It would not take much for this to turn into a full-blown arms race, drawing in other nations concerned by China’s rising military might. Avoiding worst-case outcomes will require a sustained, long-term commitment to building trust and preventive diplomacy as well as the establishment of an effective system of risk management that can prevent localized disputes and incidents from escalating into major region-wide conflicts.

Image: Pullquote: The old, U.S.-dominated order can no longer be sustained in the face of China’s emerging challenge and the relative weakness of both the United States and JapanEssay Types: Essay