Asian order put to the test

Andrew Leung says the re-emergence of China as a world power is changing regional dynamics that have long featured a strong US presence; now, each must find a way to accommodate the other

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 September, 2012, 1:43am

For decades, the South China Sea has enjoyed relative calm, despite occasional territorial disputes. This has so far depended on a predominant US military umbrella under which regional states thrive in a China-centric global production-and-supply chain. This stability has now been disturbed on several fronts.

First, China views the South China Sea as assuming ever-increasing strategic weight. China has long-standing historical territorial claims over certain islets and atolls and a consequential large swathe of the South China Sea, demarcated by the controversial U-shaped "nine-dashed lines". Situated in these waters are sea lanes vital for economic survival, as well as huge potential energy reserves. China's rival territorial claimants have now become more assertive with their claims, resulting in recent high-sea stand-offs.

Over the years, China has been building harmonious relations around and beyond its periphery. It signed the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2003. With the launch of the Asean-China Free Trade Area, the "Asean way", based on consensus and equality, has been gaining traction. But this mutually beneficial harmony is now showing signs of strain.

Second, there is growing US-China military rivalry. China is starting to build a blue-water navy with the commissioning of a first aircraft carrier. US strategists are also becoming alarmed by China's advances in mobile "aircraft-carrier killer" missiles and in cyber-warfare and space technologies, among others.

To counter China, the US military is reported to be planning a major expansion of radar missile defences in Asia. Concurrently, the Communist Party-run Global Times reported that China was developing a long-range, nuclear-capable, multiple-warhead ballistic missile that could potentially overcome US anti-missile defences.

Third, there is a looming split in the US-China symbiotic economic relationship. America is now feeling the pain of outsourcing jobs to China. It is alarmed by excessive debt-driven consumption financed by China's largesse in American treasuries. On its part, China is wary of over-reliance on exports and the folly of tying up too much savings in a "US dollar trap". Moreover, a prevailing "China threat" has resulted in unease and mistrust, if not paranoia.

These regional fault lines therefore call for a rethink for a more sustainable Asian order.

It must first be appreciated that with daunting domestic challenges, China needs a stable and peaceful international environment to progress. Following Deng Xiaoping's advice, China would be loath to seek leadership before becoming fully developed. Moreover, as China's economic welfare and national security continue to depend on integration with the world order, it is in China's interests to behave as a responsive great power.

China has therefore been operating within, and stands to benefit from, a stable regional order largely underwritten by the US. While a rising China can no longer unreservedly accept America's dominance, it would not be in China's best interest to dislodge the US from the Asian region, even if China were able to do so. Seen in this light, China's rise in Asia need not be at America's expense.

Additionally, in an interconnected and interdependent world, America's capacity to lead has become more constrained, according to the US National Intelligence Council. To tackle global challenges and to maintain world order, America needs to work closely with a host of state and non-state actors as well as allies and non-allies, including a rising China. Instead of checking China's "peaceful rise", therefore, America should strategically capitalise on it to achieve sustainable regional stability.

Moreover, none of China's neighbours, including Japan, wants to join an overt anti-China military bloc, as all depend on China for their economic growth.

Against this background, ideas for a more stable Asian order are being offered by a number of prominent strategists. Drawing on his thought-provoking book The China Choice, Professor Hugh White floats the idea of an Asian "concert of powers" to avoid a possible deadly strategic rivalry. America is to partner and share regional power with China as an equal, accommodating or balancing China's core regional interests, along with those of India and Japan. Although White's approach may work, the challenge is how this can be achieved without compromising the interests of America's key regional allies.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a doyen in American foreign policy, advances a global American grand strategy, comprising a "Larger West" by drawing Russia and Turkey into an enlarged European Union , and a "Complex East", where the US would act as "regional balancer", similar to the role played by Britain in intra-European politics before the early 20th century.

A linchpin of Brzezinski's eastern component is a "US-Japan-China co-operative triangle" to be nurtured through reconciliation between China and Japan, similar to that between Germany and France after the second world war. To accommodate China's core regional interests, Brzezinski suggests early resolution of the main sticking points in US-China relations, particularly the Taiwan issue. He doubts Taiwan can indefinitely avoid the evolution of a more formal connection with the mainland, perhaps under a "one country, several systems" formula, subject to exclusion of any People's Liberation Army deployment on the island. China's re-emergence as a world power marks another turning point in the tide of history. A classic drama of power transition is playing out. The fracturing of the Asian order is a clear manifestation. A purely military strategy is fraught with uncontrollable risks that may escalate into war. Managing and accommodating China's rise without sacrificing American interests takes strategic insight and bold thinking in the broadest context.

While actual developments and events are unlikely to fit neatly into any recipe, deeper understanding and debate of the dynamics at work may help in better managing a more sustainable Asian order, underpinned by an evolving US-China relationship, the most important of bilateral relations in the 21st century.

Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist, based in Hong Kong