The Security Landscape in East Asia: A Justifiable Anxiety?

John Kerry and Xi Jinping

By Zha Daojiong

While alarm and pessimism intensifies, assessments of the East Asian regional security landscape are a matter of perspective. The year 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the Second World War, as well as the establishment of the United Nations. Major power relations, many would argue, are still in disarray.

The foreign policy establishments in Beijing and Washington struggle to produce credible reassurance from presidential summits, with the first state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the United States in September. Both Beijing and Tokyo, again, failed to commemorate the end of the end of the Second World War. On a daily basis, media headlines announce rising tensions—coupled with television images of warships and planes of China, Japan, and the United States “showing the flag”—in the East and South China seas. In addition, North Korea tests the patience of virtually every nation concerned about its displays of rage. The general message is clear: East Asia is fast becoming a more unpredictable and dangerous region.

A less alarmist picture can also be drawn: peace is prevailing throughout the East Asian region.

This is possible when we define peace as the absence of active warfare; either between two countries or involving a larger number of states or their proxies. Realities on the ground are such that East Asia has fared far better than the Middle East or Eastern Europe, especially in the past decade. While the state of affairs in the Middle East and Ukraine is a low bar to benchmark East Asia against, it is noteworthy that for a region as historically complex and politically dynamic as East Asia, no-war is a significant accomplishment. This suggests that East Asian resilience is not just a phenomenon to be self-congratulatory about, but should in fact be fostered through pursuing cooperation.

‘Trust’ is a frequent buzzword in discussions about managing security dynamics across East Asia. But trust is hard to define or characterise. An emphasis on trust can quickly lead to difficulties in identifying steps to follow. On the one hand, trust can motivate thinking toward sensitivity in relation to other countries. Hopefully, such sensitivity can help encourage symmetry in acts of diplomacy. One the other hand, reference to trust could well turn out to be an excuse for refusing to explore alternative. Worse still, highlighting the lack of trust can serve to endorse putting the blame on others for the ongoing state of affairs. In short, it may be wiser for commentators to acknowledge that trust and cooperation is in reality another chicken versus egg puzzle.

Viewed objectively, East Asia seems to be a bastion of stability. Why then all the anxiety? One powerful mindset, and perhaps the main culprit, is a simplistic vision of the US in decline and China on the rise, and its corollary: the time for countries to choose between them as the ultimate security guarantor is drawing near. This image feeds the fear that the postwar Pax Americana in Asia is crumbling, and will inevitably be replaced by a fierce Darwinian power struggle between the United States and China. Over-confident Chinese commentators fall into jingoism. American observers leap to the conclusion that China is manoeuvring to upset the US-led hub-and-spoke regional security arrangements and, by extension, the global order. Such a simplification is so powerful that even establishment of the multilateral Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is depicted as an unmistakable indication of a zero-sum competition, notwithstanding widespread support for additional sources of investment, which is in turn conducive to generating growth in demand in the region’s economies.

This vision deserves to be debunked. Talk of US decline is a long-standing American neurosis.

Similar sentiments of weakness emerged in the early 1970s, after the Arab oil embargo, and again in the 1980s after Japan’s phenomenal rise prompted fears of US economic eclipse. In both periods, there was no shortage of foreign jingoism, in support of the argument that America’s global position had peaked. In both cases the US proved far stronger than its internal or external critics imagined. The re-emergence of US-decline rhetoric today is in fact a sign of American strength, which starts with brutal self-reflection. Arguably, America’s relative position is stronger now than in the 1970s or 1980s. China has not caused the United States economic harm as the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) states did in the 1970s.

Quite the reverse. China has proved a hugely beneficial economic partner for the US. Nor has Chinese competition had anywhere near the impact that Japan’s did in the 1980s. True, China seems destined soon to end America’s 140-year run as the world’s biggest economy if one believes the latest purchasing-power estimates of the World Bank. On the other hand, the crash of China’s stock markets in the summer of 2015 made it clear that the Chinese economy is not as stable as its nascent high-speed train system.

In the future, China’s vision of seeing revitalisation of economic growth in countries along the ancient Silk Road and in maritime trade routes from Southeast Asia to the Persian Gulf notwithstanding, its economic performance will just have to continue to reply on unfettered access to the financial systems and consumer markets of the United States and its security allies. More fundamentally, the production chain weaving together the economies of China, Japan, the US and other Asia-Pacific countries is very strong and no economy can expect to flourish by diminishing its participation in it.

To many of the region’s geo-strategic thinkers schooled through the American intellectual tradition of International Politics theory, the crux of the issue is that China, unlike Japan in the 1980s, has failed to meet America’s expectations of evolving into a like-minded country. China’s record in poverty reduction, both at home and abroad through aid and investment, means little to those who see Western-style political democracy as an absolute value. This judgment validates the fears of Chinese thinkers who see the US as fundamentally committed to the overthrow of China’s political order in order to remake its system in the American image.

Many Chinese observers are puzzled by America’s characterisation of China as a military threat; by any objective measure, China is decades away from military parity with the US, and indeed may never attain it. Chinese analysts also see American rhetoric and action as a strong factor behind the heightening of maritime sovereignty differences in the East and South China Seas in recent years, after being dormant for many decades. The US and its allies claim to see a China determined to seek revenge for the past and domination in the future. It is a matter of regret, and concern that voices of calm in the US simply fall on deaf ears (1). The result of these perceptions is a self-perpetuating belief in inescapable enmity.

Security anxieties in the Asia Pacific do have legitimate causes but further heightening is not immutable.

For China, there needs to be more appreciation of the positive role the US has played in enabling its prosperity. China’s forty years of sustained economic growth coincides with the history of a workable relationship with the United States. China’s confidence in its governing system is justifiable, but wholesale rejection of foreign (including American) lessons and ideas for economic and political governance can only be a net loss for China. Furthermore, a United States that continues to be strong is in China’s economic self-interest.

For its part, the US must face the unpleasant truth that its capacity to re-shape another country’s system of governance is limited—especially in regard to a large and complex society like China with deep-rooted and generally successful governance traditions. And American geostrategic thinkers should consider the positive value of political stability in China. Stability does not simply mean the unwelcome persistence of a regime they dislike: a stable and secure China is one that, in the long run, is more likely to accept the possibility of learning from the US.

Between China and Japan, the history issue is often said, including by those in both countries tasked to find ways out of the continuing impasse, to be the key roadblock to getting back to a normal routine of high level interactions. Over time, hope for government-sponsored joint versions of the history of World War II has faded. What can be done next? China should come up with the intellectual fortitude to highlight domestically Japan’s post-war contributions towards China’s pursuit of modernisation.

USS Ronald Regan

In the 1950s, while locked in Cold War hostility towards the Chinese government, the Japanese government allowed limited trade activities to proceed when the former was under broad Western isolation in the wake of the Korean War. Official development assistance from Japan played a powerfully supportive role in China’s re-linking with the rest of the world economy, and not only in a material sense. Particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, the fact that China and Japan were able to sustain cooperative trade and investment relations was seen as a vote of confidence in China by other industrialised nations.

China could not have succeeded in improving its relative economic position, were it not for the foundation laid in these early years. China has, of course, repaid its Yen loans, but this history of economic aid still merits recognition. Likewise, Japan needs to demonstrate political courage and argue that the time has come for its government to finally stay clear of efforts to whitewash what the country did in China and the Korean peninsula during the war. Yes, the Japanese political system is far more pluralistic; Japanese political parties and individual politicians are elected to speak on behalf of their constituencies.

But how the Japanese polity projects the country’s past to its own citizenry has been, is and will be taken into account by other countries, especially those that once suffered. Japan should beware of the future costs that the ongoing diplomatic tensions carry. A truly wise approach would be to re-orient domestic conversations about the past and their present-day relevance for the nation as a whole. For other countries in East Asia, space must be made for a distinct narrative about their positions in the evolution of the region’s security dynamic: the supposed choice between China and the US as the ultimate security guarantor is a false one.

The past few years have witnessed Washington, Beijing, Tokyo testing their separate capacities in building up respective coalitions of the willing in the East Asian region and even beyond, over issues ranging from investment to maritime order. Factors feeding into this rivalry include changes in United States policy as well as campaigns by some Southeast Asian governments, those of the Philippines and Vietnam in particular. For China, the United States and Japan, it is becoming more obvious that no party can prevail in attempting to re-engineer the regional security and economic order as textbook geostrategic and geoeconomic mapping would suggest.

The time has come for security analysts to look back at advocacy and actions taken in the past five years—over maritime issues in East Asia, for example—and ask: is the region better off than before? If so, what risks can be accepted as sensible when continuing to push the boundaries of nerve testing? If not, what can be done to persuade our domestic and international audiences to support efforts toward positive symmetry in handling the region’s security challenges, hard and soft?

Luckily, unlike the Middle East or Eastern Europe, East Asia enjoys a rather solid societal basis for dispute resolution. This is largely as result to the regions high level of economic integration, and effective multilateral channels such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and informal security dialogue proposed by ASEAN. By putting the principle of inclusivity into practice wherever manageable, parties stand a better chance of extending the aggregate stability of the region and locating each spur of anxiety in its proper, relative place.

(1) Chas Freeman, Jr. Diplomacy on the Rocks: China and Other Claimants in the South China Sea, at http://chasfreeman. net/diplomacy-on-the-rocks-china-and-other-claimants-in-the-south-china-sea/. 

This article was first published in CSCAP Regional Security Outlook 2016.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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Renuka Rajadurai

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