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Building a Security Community in the Asia-Pacific Region: Dilemmas and Prospects

Tags: Security , China-Japan-US Relations , Balance of Power , Asia-Pacific , Security Cooperation

Sun Zhe

July 19, 2012

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Looking back at the past decade, the Asia-Pacific region has, on the whole, been remarkably peaceful and stable. This is demonstrated in the fact that a clash between the big powers has not materialized. In addition, compared with what has happened in the Middle East and Central Asia in recent years, most countries in this region have put economic prosperity as one of the top priorities of their national interests. Nonetheless, in recent years, countries in this region have been facing two hard choices in dealing with their security issues: a “balance of power” approach that has already and will continue to bring about security dilemmas and competitions; and a “security community” approach that might promote cooperation among states in areas of shared interest, such as peaceful development, diplomacy promotion, and use of negotiation to resolve disagreements.

In this paper, I argue that the security dilemma in the Asia-Pacific region has been intensified partly due to the deadlock situation on the Korea Peninsula and partly due to the fact that China’s rapid economic and military rise has created threat perceptions among its neighbors as well as in the US and Japan. A marked upturn in tensions between China and the US as well as between China and many of its Asian neighbors is going to produce a regional security dynamic.[1] To achieve long-term peace and common prosperity, countries in this region must work together to build a collective “patchwork” that not only addresses the concerns of major powers but also covers bilateral, trilateral, and other multilateral configurations. In this sense, the security community approach, no matter how dismal the prospect might currently appear, is a “forced choice” for every country.

Specifically, I would argue that the future of such a framework depends heavily on how the US, China, and Japan work together. In this sense, questions on whether China can seek military modernization while at the same time strengthen its security cooperation with the US and Japan will be discussed.

I will address three issues: (1) China’s military growth and three major barriers that hold back military exchange programs between China and the US; (2) implications for the strengthening of a US-Japan alliance and its repercussions on China; and (3) suggestions for the establishment of a collective framework that includes more specific security dialogues in this region.

China’s Military Development: A Security Shadow in the Asia-Pacific Region?

There is no doubt that a security dynamic exists in the Asia-Pacific region. The main military trend around the region, however, is not the development of armed forces capable of invading and occupying neighboring states. In this sense, common security challenges in the region can be summarized as follows:

First is China’s military development, including both its projecting capabilities and intentions. China has tried to take advantage of “strategic opportunities” for a “peaceful rise.” It has emphasized the nonmilitary aspects of its comprehensive national power, adopting a three-pronged approach of setting aside areas of disagreement with neighboring states, focusing on confidence-building measures to promote ties, and engaging in economic integration and multilateral cooperation.[2]

From a Chinese perspective, the Chinese military is generally underdeveloped and undersupplied. It has a large land-based military, substandard navy, and growing air force. China’s military modernization, therefore, involves both the transformation of strategic thinking and the increasing of military capabilities issues. It consists of “component modernization, manpower modernization, doctrinal modernization, material component concerns, and social component concerns.” As China’s economic power and global influence increases, there is a pressing need for China to change its military strategy for the purpose of securing Chinese trade or more domestic interests. A proactive PLA combined with a more proactive PRC is not aiming for a military buildup or arms race in the region. Rather, it would help China establishing its self-consciousness and reputation as a responsible power.

China’s explanation is not convincing to other countries in the region. As a matter of fact, in recent years, some of China’s neighbors have substantially reversed their perceptions from seeing China as a friend and benign power to a competitor with uncertain goals, including possibly harboring plans that impinge on their national sovereignty.[3] Some counties began to seek the formation of a balancing coalition to counter China’s influence, and this, explained by Thomas Christensen, is a natural result of China’s departure from its policy of reassurance it adopted in the late 1990s.[4]

Second is US dominance in East Asia and the impact of its “coming back” strategy. The US is considered both a stabilizing force and source of trouble in this region. The US has established a traditional strategic sphere of influence in maritime East Asia, and its navy dominates the South China Sea and Western Pacific. Washington’s unchallenged naval supremacy assures that it dominates the security considerations of the region’s maritime countries, including Japan and the maritime countries of Southeast Asia.

It is important to emphasize that, as John J. Mearsheimer argued, China’s rise is likely to lead to an intense security competition between China and the US, with considerable potential for war. However, he is not arguing that Chinese behavior alone will drive the security competition that lies ahead. The US is also likely to behave in aggressive ways, thus further increasing the prospects for trouble in the Asia-Pacific region.[5]

The third challenge refers to disputes in the region, including the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, disputes in the South China Sea, and a regional arms race. For example, North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons and the proliferation of nuclear knowhow and ballistic missile equipment has been a topic since the mid-1990s. Another example is Vietnam and the Philippines conducting live-fire exercises in disputed waters; strengthened ties with the US with a US presence are seen by both as the most visible deterrent.

US-China Military-to-Military Relations

Relations between China and the US in the last two decades have generally been characterized by a mix of cooperation and competition. Accordingly, the fragile interplay between beneficial cooperation and fundamental disagreement has led to a US-China military relationship that is constantly in transition,[6] experiencing several periods of setbacks and improvements. Today, the US-China military-to-military relationship remains immature and continues to stand as the weakest link in the relationship. Therefore, it is not surprising to see that the PRC and the US are the only two countries in the world who are seeking to improve relations while simultaneously preparing for war against each other.

It has been 60 years since the US and China were in a direct military conflict, and most scholars and diplomats feel the unlikeness of that happening again in the near future. Nonetheless, tensions between Beijing and Washington have decidedly intensified in the last two or three years. The Washington Times even called one of the alleged factions in the US–China policy process the “sad and disappointed” faction.[7]

US criticism of China has included its siding with the DPRK after the Cheonan incident despite the cost to its relations with the ROK, its clash with the US at the Copenhagen Conference, the PLA’s threatening public statements, China’s resisting US efforts for high-level dialogue, and the embarrassment caused by China not making a briefing on the J-20 stealth fighter test that occurred the day before US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ planned visit with President Hu Jintao.

China's leaders appear to recognize that direct Chinese competition with the US for influence in Asia is counterproductive to Chinese interests. To a great extent, their attention on the security issue is primarily focused on three main areas: defense of national interests in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea contested by Japan, regaining control over Taiwan, and ousting competitors from the Spratly archipelago. It can be argued that the Chinese military strategy appears fairly transparent: to design and deploy forces specifically to deter, and defeat if necessary, US forces in and around Taiwan[8] and in the South China Sea.

From the American point of view, the US recognizes the fact that “China remains several decades away from US capability,” but it has envisaged, revealed, and enhanced its focus on China’s development in the area of antisatellite weapons; cyber weapons; nuclear submarines; fifth generation aircraft, including "stealth" technology; and particularly the emergence of China's long-range ballistic missiles. For example, the US considers that the Chinese are building naval forces that can project power out to the so-called “Second Island Chain” in the Western Pacific and that China is also planning to build a “blue water navy” that can operate in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. This reflects the “aggressive philosophy of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century US naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, who argued for sea control and the decisive battle.” [9]

In addition to the criticism on China’s military capability development, the US also criticized the PLA for continuing to emphasize the “American threat,” refusing to join alliances or participate in joint military exercises with other nations, dodging on institutionalizing military cooperation beyond a superficial level, and trying to avoid multilateral security cooperation.[10]

To counterbalance China, the US has been trying to strengthen its military presence on China’s periphery and forming a de facto military encirclement against China.

These US efforts have also received criticisms from China. Today, China highlights the “three major obstacles” to an improvement of US-China relations. These are: (1) continued US arms sales to Taiwan; (2) close-in US surveillance and reconnaissance; (3) laws and regulations in the United States that prohibit military-to-military exchange and the sale of high-tech goods to China.

To elaborate, the first obstacle is about US arms sales to Taiwan. The issue is perceived by China as a lack of US respect for China’s “core interests.” To Americans, China’s views on US arms sales to Taiwan are not sufficiently sensitive either to US concerns and interests or to Taiwan’s psychology. A unilateral cessation or sharp reduction of US arms sales to Taiwan would endanger US alliances and credibility in the entire region and would also undermine the political position of Taiwan’s KMT leader, Ma Yingjiou, whose ability to work with Beijing to improve cross-strait ties rests in part on his capability to maintain a credible defense. It would, in short, boost the DPP’s chances of returning to power.

The two countries need to take steps to lower the military temperature across the Taiwan Strait. The ongoing preparation of each side for the possibility of military confrontation over Taiwan is a highly corrosive force on each side. Lowering the temperature cannot be done at this stage through an explicit agreement. Rather it should occur through unilateral steps by each side that increase mutual confidence that both are prepared to move in the same direction.

The second obstacle, pointed out by the Chinese military, is the close-in US military and surveillance operations close to China’s coast. China believes the constant US military air and sea surveillance and survey operations in China's exclusive economic zone had led to military confrontations demonstrated in both the EP-3 crisis and the US Impeccable incident in the South China Sea. Thus, China has called on the US to reduce, and gradually put an end to, air and sea military surveillance and survey operations to avoid naval confrontations. The US, however, only agreed to continue discussions with their Chinese counterparts on effective methods of ensuring the safety of naval vessels and warplanes of the two sides.

The third obstacle that holds back the military exchange programs between China and the US is American laws and regulations, as verified in the 2000 US Defense Authorization Act, which prohibits military-to-military exchange and the sale of high-tech goods to China.

There is incentive for both to seek cooperation, since military dialogue may increase clarity and understanding, even if it does not narrow differences. US officials have acknowledged that they have limited insight into Beijing’s decision making and have in the past misjudged the country’s intentions.[11]

Some American political leaders, including congressmen, fear that contact with the US military has actually improved the PLA’s war fighting abilities. A lack of reciprocity and transparency on the China side is being criticized because China, as a weaker power, is reluctant to reveal all of its capabilities and vulnerabilities. Others argue that the US can use deterrence to strategically influence China through its military-to-military relationship. The US has more to gain from exchanges even if the flow of information is not equal because so little is known about the PLA through open sources.

These three obstacles were discussed at various levels in the past decade. Indeed, there is a fundamental strategic debate occurring in China, with some advocating a much firmer line towards the US, while others proposing a tougher approach to deal with the US. The outcome is not yet fully obvious.

It should be noted that, some of the largest strategic factors affecting the relationship are differences of opinion regarding regional security in Asia, the Global War on Terror, and the use of force without provocation or international support. Against these backgrounds, so far the two countries have established three bilateral dialogues. These are: the Defense Policy Consultative Talks, the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, and the Defense Consultative Talks. The stage is now set for China to move toward serious nuclear strategic discussion with Washington.

In addition to these formal dialogues, the two countries’ militaries have both expressed interest in working with each other to get North Korea back to the Six Party Talks and to take serious steps on denuclearization and other regional and global security issues, such as collaborating more closely on implementing sanctions on Iran and consulting more closely on future intentions in Afghanistan

Even though the two countries already have dialogue mechanisms, different approaches to military relations, including bottom-up or top-down trust building, operational or strategic transparency, and inefficient bureaucratic procedures have all complicated the relationship as well. For example, the Chinese usually see military relationships as a means for defense modernization and conflict avoidance. Accordingly, the Chinese like to build trust from the top-down, beginning with agreement on common principles before engaging in cooperative activities on lower levels. The US, on the contrary, prefers a bottom-up approach to build trust. So it is argued that the Chinese value transparency on the strategic level whereas the US wants operational transparency.

The US and China should step up exchanges and visits at all levels. They should also begin to work more intensively on the seven areas of potential cooperation identified in earlier bilateral discussions. These include cyber security, space warfare, nuclear weapons doctrine, antipiracy, avoiding incidents at sea, and search and rescue. It would be prudent to focus on the less controversial ones to build confidence, for example, anti-piracy and avoiding incidents at sea.

The Strengthening of US-Japan Alliance: A Chinese Interpretation

The US has approached security relations in the Asia-Pacific region as a hub-and-spoke arrangement—with the US at the center of bilateral ties among nations that, in turn, have limited bilateral, if any, military interactions and security arrangements with each other.

Recent moves by the US were interpreted as being driven by a clear intention of balancing China. Chinese statements about the Obama administration’s reorientation toward engaging Asia are quite worrisome inasmuch as they suggest that the purpose of this so-called re-engagement is to constrain China or, at least, to diminish its influence and power—what one Chinese called “soft containment.” Hillary Clinton’s assertion of a US “national interest” in a peaceful settlement of South China Sea disputes was seen as a departure from Washington’s longstanding hands-off strategy.

The situation became even more complicated because China and Japan see each other as having become not only more conservative in their domestic politics but also more aggressive and assertive in their security policy. For instance, Japan announced its new National Defense Program Guidelines in December 2010, which called for enhanced ISR operations along the Diaoyu Islands and reinforcement of the submarine fleet. In the US-Japan 2+2 meeting, Tokyo and Washington included maintenance of maritime security and strengthened ties with ASEAN, Australia, and India in common strategic objectives. How to manage the relationship between China and Japan is a serious challenge for both countries.

A Security Community: A Forced Choice

Various proposals have been made by scholars in the region calling for a common security architecture. Is the US inadvertently fueling the purported arms race with its increasingly active military engagement in the region? What can be done to moderate the negative consequences of the competitive arms build-up? Are recent naval purchases tantamount to an arms race? Are these acquisitions better understood in “modernization” terms and the replacement of obsolete equipment? Is the purported military build-up a manifestation of the simmering strategic conflict that also involves the US?

Of course, a key question needs to be addressed: whether or to what extent China will support or spoil the collective security framework. Although countries in this region have historic animosities, deep policy differences, competing economic claims, and well-developed armed forces, they also share expectations for peaceful change, diminishing the prospect of using force.

There will be enormous benefits for the region and the world if China and the US both rely on diplomacy to support the adjustments that inevitably must accompany China’s rise to great power status, and to promote a stable and mutually beneficial regional and global balance of power. In this regard, there should be powerful imperatives for cooperation between the two countries. Among these imperatives are growing economic interdependence and the need to meet common global, regional, and bilateral challenges that no one power can meet singlehandedly. But there are equally powerful obstacles to developing a truly cooperative relationship. Where mutual trust is not possible, we should strive for greater transparency, predictability, and reliability. So the realistic task for the future is to make the mix as positive as possible.

While regional countries must cooperate to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, it should avoid “the comfortable to all pace” and consensus-decision-making process that ensures the participation of all players, which may simply see the addition of new forums that essentially reinforce past tendencies of multilateral institutional stasis and issue avoidance.[12]

It should be remembered that China has been extremely supportive of US counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan but did not support the expansion of this war against the so-called “axis of evil.” The United States’ apparent unilateralism, ignoring EU and UN opinions, raised some concerns. China also blames America for the current situation with Taiwan and opposes any US attempt to undermine other states’ sovereignty and impose Western values.

China has also followed “a longer-term strategy to pursue a range of objectives that in the process will broaden Chinese influence relative to that of the United States in the countries along China's periphery.”[13] In this sense, a collective regional framework is possible, and thus the author would propose the following steps to build up the regional security framework:

•    China’s Continued Reform of Domestic Politics. To some extent, China needs to shed its authoritarian elements and recognize the positive role of the hub-and-spoke system for maintaining the stability of the region.

•    Expansion of the US-China Security Dialogue. Through this bilateral framework, Beijing and Washington should promote mutual understanding of tacit agreements to maximize cooperation, manage friction, live with competition, and coexist peacefully.

•    Strategic and Economic Dialogue between China and Japan.

•    Exploration of the Idea of the “East Asia Community.”

•    A Trilateral Consultative Defense Conference among the Three Superpowers in the Region: the US, China, and Japan.

•    A binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. China has to calm neighboring claimants and prepare to work together with other countries on this issue. China has conducted dialogue and consultations with its neighboring countries in the 1990s and should continue to do so in a multilateral framework.

•    Other measures and Activities to Create a Culture of Cooperation and Demonstrate the Benefits of Participation.



[1] Aaron Friedberg, “The New Era of US-China Rivalry,” Wall Street Journal (January 17, 2011); Ronald L. Tammen and Jacek Kugler, “Power Transition and China-US Conflicts,” Chinese Journal of International Politics, (2006) 1 (1) p. 48.

[2] C. Fred Bergstern, Bates Gill, Nicholas R. Lardy, and Derek Mitchell, China: The Balance Sheet. What the World Needs to Know about the Emerging Superpower, New York: Public Affairs (2006) p. 120.

[3] Ernest Z. Bower, “Hu Jintao's Visit and the South China Sea: Whose/ Hu's Core Interests?” (January 11, 2011), retrieved on January 13, 2011, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies website (www.csis.org/publication/hu-jinatos-visit-and-the-south-china-sea-whosehus-core-interests).

[4] Thomas Christensen, “The Advantages of an Assertive China: Responding to Beijing’s Abrasive Diplomacy,” Foreign Affairs, March/April (2011).

[5] John J. Mearsheimer, “The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia,” Chinese Journal of International Politics, Volume3, Issue4 (2010) pp. 381-396.

[6] Kevin Pollpeter, “US-China Security Management: Assessing the Military-to-Military Relationship,” RAND Corporation (2004).

[7] Adam Entous and Evan Ramstad, “China Seen Defusing Korea: US Believes Beijing Interceded with North to Ease Standoff on Peninsula,” Wall Street Journal (December 22, 2010) retrieved on December 22, 2010, from Wall Street Journal Online (http://www.online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704774604576034930766053832.html?mod=WSJASIA_hpp_LEFTTopStories).

[8] Ronald L. Tammen and Jacek Kugler, Op.Cit, p. 48.

[9] Robert D. Kaplan, “The Geography of Chinese Power,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 89, No. 3 (2010), p. 34.

[10] David Shambaugh, “China’s Military Views the World: Ambivalent Security,” International Security, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Winter 1999/2000), pp. 52–79.

[11] Narendra Kumar Tripathi, China’s Asia-Pacific Strategy and India, New Delhi, Vij Books India Pvt, Ltd., (2011), p. 43.

[12] CSCAP, Regional Security Outlook, 2011, p. 8.

[13] Robert Sutter, “China's Recent Approach to Asia: Seeking Long-Term Gains,” Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, NBR Analysis, Vol. 13, No 1, March 2002, p. 13-38, http://www.nbr.org.

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