A conclave of East Asian scholars, realists all, got together in Beijing on January 16, and no two solons formed an alliance. It seems Chinese and American scholars and policy-makers, who seem hellbent on talking each other into submission – this was #8 of these confabs – are just as contentious as their political counterparts. According to Alan Alexandroff, “The other noticeable feature in the discussions over the last several days was not only the apparent growing diversity of opinion between the groups of experts but a greater diversity of opinion within the groups.”
First, the island disputes. For these former officials and experts, it was evident that they understood the deep differences in the two island chain disputes. But much attention was placed on the rising friction between and among disputants.
The island disputes moved China, as one expert acknowledged, from reassurance to resolve. As a result it appears that China’s more assertive behavior has led to many of the disputant states to encourage increased US involvement. As one expert suggested only China could contain China and as China has become more assertive it has accomplished just that.
There was also much animated discussion over the Administration’s “pivot”. Some of the most pointed analysis came from US experts. Much criticism was laid out of the Administration and its intention – the seemingly aggressive use of language by high US officials in the region, the failure to acknowledge the continuity in military policy and the reduction in US assurances to China. Experts chided the US for interference in the open disputes in particular between the Philippines and China and Vietnam and China in the South China Sea and between Japan and China in the East China Sea. For Chinese discussants there was a growing suspicion that US actions were designed to contain and constrain China and that US intermeddling, as they saw it, had raised hopes of US support for its Asian allies and had the effect of encouraging greater belligerence among these countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and most especially Japan. As one expert suggested while it may not have been US intent, the pivot has put in place policies that increased US presence in region. Chinese experts were insistent that Chinese actions were only reactive. Though China was always particularly resolute over sovereignty questions – having endured the many years of humiliation over the foreign interventions in China – its current behavior was neither aggressive nor offensive.
The China experts also raised somewhat puzzling perspectives on US policy in the Asia Pacific region. Many China experts were critical of the Pivot for it’s almost exclusive attention to military and strategic actions in the Asia Pacific. They repeatedly questioned the intentions of US policy makers – pointing over and over to designs to constrain China and deny China’s rise. But then when US experts raised the diplomatic and economic initiatives – the US agreement to join the East Asia Summit, adhere to ASEAN’s TAC – the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the effort to build consensus for new economic agreement in the Pacific – Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – these too raised suspicions among some China experts of a unilateral China targeting. The TPP in particular raised suspicions of an effort to contain China through the proposed trade and regulatory arrangements with an evident effort to isolate China and to target its State-owned Enterprises. Even when it was pointed out that the TPP was in fact a creature originally of the preceding Bush Administration and not immediately connected to the Obama pivot it did not appear to allay concerns. The incongruity remained on the table: was the US pivot all about the strategic, or was there in fact a broad revitalization of US actions including strategic but addressing diplomatic and economic initiatives and not solely designed with China in mind.
Stephen M. Walt, a participant, came out of the conference characteristically unimpressed.
Unfortunately, managing Sino-American relations over the long term will be even harder. If Chinese leaders are consistently smart, judicious, farsighted, clear-eyed, and wise, and if their American counterparts consistently exhibit similar qualities, then the two governments may be able to manage their future relations without serious trouble. But the history of both countries suggests that there is very little chance that these idyllic circumstances will prevail every year for the next several decades. Sooner or later, we are bound to get a cadre of foolish, impetuous, or incompetent leaders in one capital or the other, or maybe even both at the same time. If “wise leadership” is the prerequisite for managing Sino-American rivalry over the long haul, in short, history suggests one ought to worry. A lot.
Here are some LONG quotes from a roundtable on “Regional Perspectives on U.S. Strategic Rebalancing” from the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) in the most recent edition of Asia Policy. I’m highlighting the East Asia Three (China, South Korea, and Japan) and Taiwan.
It doesn’t reassure. Let me point out, that I think offshore balancing or offshore control are far more practical alternatives to forward deployment of American and allied military forces. And, in addition, the TPP is just another epithet for managed trade deals.
Beijing thus believes that the U.S. rebalancing strategy aims at constraining China from becoming the dominant power in East Asia, in spite of assurances from Washington that the strategy does not target China. Yet faced with this policy, mainstream Chinese strategists continue to regard mutual trust as a precondition for strategic cooperation between Beijing and Washington and worry that the lack of mutual trust will undermine bilateral relations and increase the risk of war. This view is actually shared by Washington. Communication is seen as an effective approach for improving mutual trust. For instance, with the exception of Vice President Xi Jinping, who had injured his back, all of China’s national leaders met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to China in September 2012, even though they knew these meetings could not result in any common understanding. The Chinese government similarly values the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) because it believes that this mechanism can help improve mutual trust with the United States. In fact, the S&ED is less useful for improving mutual trust than it is for finding common or complementary interests between the two countries. Chinese realists agree with the mainstream strategists that growing competition between China and the United States is inevitable as the gap in comprehensive national power narrows between the two countries. With China poised to become a superpower second only to the United States by 2022, the strategic competition between them will likely only intensify and proliferate into more sectors. Yet Chinese realists have confidence that selfish interests, such as the desire to avoid military clashes between two nuclear powers, will encourage U.S.-China cooperation, especially preventive cooperation. As long as both sides are vigilant, they can keep their competition peaceful. Consider, for example, that the disputes between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands have had almost no impact on China-U.S. relations. This phenomenon illustrates that both Beijing and Washington are wary of conflicts that could escalate to military clashes.
In comparison with U.S. policy toward China during the first term of the Clinton administration, the current U.S. rebalancing strategy is much softer and clearly illustrates the superficial friendship between China and the United States. This state of superficial friendship drives rivalry between the two countries, but the strategy of superficial friendship facilitates cooperation between them. China and the United States have been able to maintain this superficial friendship since the late 1990s, even in the absence of mutual trust, mainly because they share objective strategic interests, such as nuclear nonproliferation, peace in the Asia-Pacific, counterterrorism in Central Asia, and trade and investment. In the late 1990s, for example, China and the United States agreed to no longer target nuclear weapons at each other, which helped stabilize bilateral relations.
U.S. rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific represents a fundamental
change in U.S. defense strategy. At the same time, Japan has adopted a
new set of security policies—most importantly, the dynamic defense force
concept. The concept’s focus on defense of the southwestern islands may
in part provide U.S. forces deployed in and around Okinawa with Japan’s
defensive cover. There is thus an urgent need for the United States and
Japan to conduct an intensive series of dialogues in order to coordinate
their respective defense strategies, which encompass a number of areas
where the two countries could reinforce each other’s efforts. Along with U.S.
rebalancing, China’s rise will be the central factor in the security landscape
of the Asia-Pacific. Both the United States and Japan should make their
best effort to build and maintain constructive relations with China through
various forms of engagement, including military-to-military exchanges.
This engagement strategy will work better if the United States and its allies
are successful in partly hedging their policies vis-à-vis China. While China’s
rise over the last two decades has been significant in military terms, the
People’s Liberation Army still has a considerable way to go to catch up with
the world’s first-class militaries. Hence, the United States and its allies in
Asia have an opportunity to create a security environment in which regional
actors, including China, naturally incline toward cooperative rather than
This discussion raises the question of the United States’ commitment
to a robust and continuous forward deployment in the Asia-Pacific. To help
the United States pursue a more “geographically distributed, operationally
resilient, and politically sustainable” posture, Japan, along with other U.S.
allies such as South Korea and Australia, should work closely with Washington to implement agreed-on programs to relocate U.S. bases in Japan. Through such an effort, U.S. forward deployment in Asia will become more distributed throughout the region, providing countries with a better chance to address various contingencies across a wider range of geographic areas.
As the stakeholders in China’s foreign policies become diversified, it is uncertain which road Beijing will take. The combination of nationalism and conservatism in China will accelerate its military buildup,while the partnership between internationalism and liberalism will enhance its engagement with the rest of the world.
Considering these changes, redefining the role of the U.S.-ROK alliance relative to Washington’s rebalancing effort will be crucial. The alliance, which has lasted almost six decades, has successfully preserved the stability of the Korean Peninsula as well as managed regional security relations. However, it will face a variety of challenges in this decade. Along with leadership transitions on the Korean Peninsula, the rise of China and the changing military balance in Asia raise new issues for the military relationship between South Korea and the United States. The discrepancy between this new regional security architecture and the economic one further complicates the posture of South Korea and the United States toward China. Most countries in Asia maintain strong economic interdependence with China, and South Korea is no exception. For almost a decade, South
Korea’s biggest trading partner has been China, while the United States has been its most important security partner. Given this context, the future tasks for the U.S.-ROK alliance will be to peacefully manage the evolution of the regional balance of power, establish a cooperative mechanism for working with China, and address regional security issues, such as North Korea, territorial disputes, and human security concerns. This will only be
possible when the trust that is necessary for long-term strategic cooperation
exists among South Korea, the United States, and China.
South Korea hopes that the process of managing these issues will be peaceful. The bottom line is that there needs to be an East Asian regional order flexible enough to permit a balance of benefits and rights that reflects the shifting balance of power. Given the uneven development of national power in international politics, the critical issue is whether there is systemic flexibility and adaptability to adjust to the new distribution of power. Enhancing systemic flexibility means (1) preventing war among great powers or military clashes for regional hegemony, (2) peacefully managing difficult regional affairs that have implications for great-power rivalry, (3) establishing universal and international norms in spite of the power shift, and (4) enhancing the role of middle powers to reduce strategic distrust among great powers, especially between the United States and China.
Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang:
Taiwan experts understand the rebalancing strategy to be like a trident, combining the three prongs of multilateral diplomacy, trade promotion, and military redeployment. On the diplomatic front, the United States is not only proactively participating in almost all regional multilateral economic and security forums but also enhancing bilateral relations with traditional allies, countries in Southeast Asia, and countries traditionally close to China. On the economic front, in addition to its active involvement in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the United States has worked to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would create the largest and most liberalized free trade area in the world. On the security front, the introduction of the air-sea battle concept and the U.S. military’s future plans for force realignment serve as a counterbalance to China’s growing force-projection capability. In this “strategic trident,” Taiwan sees a comprehensive U.S. approach to rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region.
Yet even with this determination, U.S. rebalancing toward Asia is considered by many in Taiwan as a “do-as-you-go” type of policy for several reasons. First, when President Obama issued the new strategic guidance at the Pentagon, he also announced deep defense budget cuts over the next ten years, raising questions about whether the United States will have the resources available to support and sustain a pivot to Asia. Second, given that the United States is moving away from its decade-long ground war in the
Middle East and Afghanistan and that the topography of the Asia-Pacific prioritizes naval and air operations, reductions to the U.S. Army and Marine Corps make sense. However, with a considerable number of articles and conference papers continuing to emphasize the value of ground forces in future warfare, the jury still seems to be out on the value of the
air-sea battle concept, even within the U.S. defense community. Third, if the TPP is eventually ratified, many Asian countries will have to make tremendous reforms in regulations and trade practices to be eligible to join the partnership. In addition, various levels of domestic resistance against trade liberalization and open markets will inevitably challenge the resolve of regional leaders.
Fourth, even as we agree that there is bipartisan support in Washington for the reorientation of the United States toward Asia, the key lies in those people who implement the strategy. The current U.S. Asia team, best represented by outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, has been instrumental in laying the foundation for U.S. rebalancing toward Asia. The magnitude and efficiency of this
strategy will largely depend on Washington’s next Asia policy lineup, their .previous views on and experience in the region, and their personalities.