China's Rise, Asia's Dilemma

China's Rise, Asia's Dilemma

Mini Teaser: America's Asian allies don't always share our assessments of China. We shouldn't make them choose between Washington and Beijing.

by Author(s): Chung Min Lee

The View from Seoul

In the aftermath of the Kim Dae-jung government (1998â€"2003)and continuing well into President Roh Moo-hyun's tenure, Seoul'spolicies toward Beijing have shifted from a relationship dominatedby economics to a more comprehensive relationship. While Seoul hastaken care to emphasize that it continues to view as fundamentalits alliance with the United States--most recently reaffirmedthrough the June 10 summit in Washington--Seoul's posture towardPyongyang has increasingly coincided with Beijing's views ratherthan Washington's. In part, such a transformation illustratesSeoul's increasing desire to shape its own "boutique" foreign andnational security policy by balancing its decades-old alliance withthe United States with new linkages with China.

The prevailing perception in South Korea that China is the onlygreat power that exerts real influence over North Korea (in thecontext of facilitating the Six-Party Talks and Beijing's leveragein terms of providing fuel and food to Pyongyang) has upgradedChina's net strategic value. Thus, Seoul has painstakingly avoidedpolicies that could upset China; this helps to explain why Seouldecided not to participate in a TMD study in 1998 and subsequentlydeclined to join the PSI.

After Pyongyang announced on February 10 that it had nuclearweapons, and more recently when U.S. intelligence reports seemed toindicate that Pyongyang might take steps to conduct an undergroundnuclear test, Seoul's response was notably measured. When U.S.officials hinted that consequences would be faced by Pyongyang ifit crossed the test threshold, South Korean officials insisted thatovert pressures toward Pyongyang would probably backfire and thatthe best recourse to resolve the nuclear issue was through patientdiplomacy and enhanced inter-Korean economic linkages. To Seoul'srelief, Beijing has also rejected even limited sanctions againstPyongyang.

Ever since the June 2000 inter-Korean summit between KimDae-jung and Kim Jong-il, South Korea has chosen to consistentlydownplay North Korea's military intentions and capabilities. Whilethe Ministry of National Defense continues to point out the dangersposed by North Korea's WMD programs, it has been loath to highlightNorth Korea's military threat. More importantly, it has alsorefused to jointly plan with its U.S. ally for contingencies in theNorth. This, in turn, connects to a growing ambivalence about thefuture of the U.S.-Korean alliance. While the anti-Americansentiments that reached a crescendo in 2002 and 2003 coincidentwith the election of Roh Moo-hyun have since subsided, divergencesof perceptions and policies with the United States have alsocontributed to an increase in Seoul's convergence with Beijing. Onvirtually every aspect of North Korean policy, such as Pyongyang'snuclear ambitions, human rights abuses, and the delinking ofeconomic and political issues, Seoul is closer to Beijing thanWashington.

Moreover, whereas U.S. policy toward North Korea (as well asoverall U.S. foreign and security policy, for that matter)continues to receive close scrutiny in South Korea, Chinese foreignpolicy receives only limited examination. While trade andhistorical disputes have arisen in the past, the South Koreangovernment has been extremely accepting of China's externalpostures. South Korean suspicions of a more robust Japanesesecurity strategy, coupled with the desire not to upsetinter-Korean rapprochement, have, for the time being, stymiedtrilateral security coordination--a major strategic dividend forNorth Korea and China. And many South Koreans believe that China'srole in the road toward reunification is going to becomeprogressively important and that at any rate, China is morefavorably inclined to a unified Korea than Japan or even the UnitedStates.

This is not to suggest that South Korea will permanently sidewith Beijing, though convergence will persist in the short term: Aslong as South Korea adheres to accelerated engagement with theNorth, even at the expense of its alliance with the United Statesor crucial ties with Japan, Seoul's overtures to Beijing willcontinue. Over the long run, however, Seoul's tilt could result insharp reversals, not only in the context of sustaining its alliancewith the United States but equally, if not more so, in misreadingChinese intensions on the Korean Peninsula. As Beijing exploits itsrole as the primary manager of the North Korean problem, a NorthKorea that espouses nuclear ambiguity and depends heavily on Chinafor oil and food supplies (while constraining U.S. and Japanesemaneuverability in northeast Asia), provides China with a key forcemultiplier. Thus, the longer-term viability of South Korea'sbalancing act is likely to face a critical litmus test onceinternal dynamics begin to worsen in North Korea and China beginsto assert actively its "geopolitical share" in a revampedKorea.

The View from New Delhi

Sino-Indian relations have to be seen in the context of threemajor developments in the post-Cold War era: the exploiting of neweconomic relationships flowing from India's growing economicattractiveness, India's expanded maneuverability based on a greaterarray of "strategic partners" than at any other time sinceindependence, and India's ambitions to become the undisputedsub-regional hegemon. In short, India's China strategy seeks toinstitutionalize a quid pro quo whereby both sides accept and, tothe extent possible, accommodate each other's rise.

Such a step entails the need to ensure that India does notspearhead direct or even indirect efforts to encircle China. As theonly Asian nuclear power whose economic potential could approximateChina's in the long run, China probably has the most to fear fromIndia's ascendance, particularly if India continues to upgrade itsstrategic cooperation with the United States. While New Delhiremains cautious about overemphasizing the U.S.-Indian card, it hasalready accrued key dividends by marginalizing whatever gainsPakistan has made through its role as a key front-line state in thewar against terrorism. And for every gain that strengthens India'sstrategic gravitas, it is Pakistan's relative loss, and byextension, China's.

For the time being, Indian leaders seem content with enhancingbilateral trade ties with China (which reached $14 billion in 2004)through negotiations to conclude a free trade agreement and avoidhostile energy competition. But notwithstanding the benefits of acloser Sino-Indian trade relationship, strategic calculationspermeate India's policies toward China.

Foremost in the Indian strategic mindset is curtailing ordenying China's attempts to broaden its strategic footprintstretching from southern China through Burma and Pakistan and allthe way to the Persian Gulf. India is carefully watching China'smilitary cooperation with Burma and Beijing's support for theconstruction of a new naval base in the Pakistani port of Gwadar,as well as Chinese activities in Bangladesh, Cambodia andIndonesia.

As China's oil imports from the Middle East continue toincrease, so too will Chinese maritime traffic and with it Chinesenaval assets to protect key sea lanes. If China ultimately succeedsin servicing and, more importantly, stationing naval vessels inPakistani, Burmese and other ports, India's ability to retain seacontrol will be contested.

In order to pre-empt such developments or to retain the capacityfor more active sea-control missions, India has decided to buildtwo indigenous aircraft carriers by 2011, and possibly another,depending on budgetary allocations. These and other moves by Indiaattest to New Delhi's growing power-projection capabilities in theIndian Ocean. Whether such new-found strategic leverage willultimately be used to counter-balance China remains uncertain,although for now the theory is that a nuclear-armed, militarilyrobust and economically resurgent India is one of the leastcomplicated ways to effectively counter-balance Chinese expansionin Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

The View from Jakarta

If India's China policy is driven by the twin exigencies ofeconomic interests and counter-balancing Chinese forays, so too areIndonesia's, but with a more nuanced twist. From Jakarta'sperspective, there are key gains from expanding the relationshipwith China, but it must tread carefully, given the need to satisfydomestic political forces and its aspirations to assume greaterstrategic leverage in Southeast Asia without endangering its keyrole in ASEAN.

Although Indonesia has not undertaken a fundamentalreorientation of its foreign and national security postures bystrengthening its relationship with China at the expense of otherties, such as with Australia, it has taken steps to significantlyupgrade its China card. In April, President Susilo BambangYudhoyono and President Hu Jintao signed an agreement to form a"strategic partnership." The step was not an insignificant one,considering that official ties were only restored in 1990.

For the time being, Indonesia seems to be content withmaximizing economic linkages with China that are drivenincreasingly by China's voracious energy demands and Indonesia'sabundant natural resources, such as natural gas and timber. In2004, bilateral trade reached $14 billion, and both sides plan toincrease that by up to $20 billion within the next three years.China has provided low interest loans, relief for the tsunamidisaster and joint energy exploration schemes.

Jakarta also seems willing to exploit more limited payoffs suchas "softly" counter-balancing U.S. and Australian influences in theregion, although it has assiduously pursued the re-establishment ofmilitary-to-military contacts with the United States in addition toexploiting the benefits flowing from selective defense cooperationwith Australia.

Beginning with former President Abdurrahman Wahid and continuingon to his successors, Jakarta for the most part has welcomedBeijing's sustained courtship. For China, the re-establishment ofrelations with Indonesia marks a milestone in its "Look South"policy, given that all Southeast Asian states today recognize the"one-China" policy. (Not insignificantly, when China passed theanti-secessionist law by the National People's Congress last March,Jakarta responded by reaffirming its one-China policy and decliningto comment on the legislation.) For its part, while Singaporecontinues to maintain robust unofficial ties with Taiwan, includingpartial training of Singapore's armed forces in Taiwan, Singaporehas also signaled its intention to gradually reduce its militaryrelationship with Taiwan.

Indonesia's rise as the dominant power in Southeast Asia,coupled with its status as the world's largest Muslim nation, hasspurred China to cultivate expanded economic and political tieswith Indonesia. From Beijing's perspective, closer Sino-Indonesianstrategic collaboration could serve to complicate U.S. efforts toentice Indonesia into broader security cooperation with the UnitedStates while also exploiting sporadic cleavages between Australiaand Indonesia. But so long as the armed forces continue to play animportant role in the formulation of Indonesia's security policy,Jakarta is likely to maintain its apprehensively beneficialengagement strategy for the time being.

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