Friday, February 24, 2012

An assertive China rattles the region

Since the mid 1990s China has pursued a predominantly cautious approach to East Asia: it normalised relations with virtually all its neighbours, joined the region’s multilateral institutions and generally got on with being an ordinary member of Asia’s international society.

During this time, China’s approach largely conformed with Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to calmly bide one’s time and carefully hide one’s power and ambition. But since late 2009 China’s approach to its regional relations has undoubtedly become more assertive.

In particular, Beijing unleashed an unusually fiery denunciation of American arms sales to Taiwan in early 2010 and displayed a distinctly ambivalent attitude to the sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan warship (suspected to have been perpetrated by North Korea) around the same time. Equally indicative of China’s new approach to regional relations was the much higher strategic priority it placed on the South China Sea. But this new assertiveness was nowhere more evident than in China’s reaction to North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island — which resulted in the deaths of four South Koreans including two civilians.

Where in the past the premium was on building good relations with its neighbours, avoiding confrontation and investing in regional trust, in the last two years China has acted in accordance with its key strategic interests. As such, some analysts feel it has made a strategic blunder. They argue that the country has overplayed its hand and undone years of careful diplomatic work, and that Asian powers, which had hitherto been uncertain about China, have had their worst fears confirmed. Perhaps most importantly, this line of commentary suggests that in light of the Obama administration’s emphasis on Asia, China seems inadvertently to have enhanced America’s position. This interpretation sees Chinese assertiveness as a reflection of the broader shortcomings of China’s strategic policy infrastructure.

Consequently, East Asia — and in particular America’s strategic partners — should be reassured by recent events because they imply that American primacy will continue to deliver regional stability for many years to come.

This is the wrong conclusion to draw from China’s recent assertiveness. It is clear that China’s ability to provide regional leadership has been dented by these recent events, and that its capacity to present itself as an honest broker on the Korean Peninsula is similarly damaged. But it does not follow either that China will revert to the cautious policies of the past, or that American primacy is the key to regional stability in the future. Even as allies recognise the ongoing need for American presence in the region, they are concerned that the US appears unable to prevent future destabilising actions.

These developments are not simply a blip in China’s East Asian strategy — they are an indicator of what the region’s future will look like if it continues on its current path. Points of strategic difference are increasingly being militarised and this is creating a feedback loop whereby further militarisation is regarded as necessary precisely because of these frictions. Equally, existing multilateral mechanisms are plainly not up to the task of managing the overlapping interests of the region’s states. Recent events also show that the major powers increasingly see strategic interaction in zero-sum terms. In key areas of interest there seems little prospect of China’s much touted ‘win-win approach’ actually winning the day. Many in the region feel that US strategic influence has been reduced and that non-allied states can resist American preferences more easily than in the past.

The events of the past 18–24 months thus mark the beginning of a period that is likely to be characterised by frictions and conflict borne from intersecting lines of interest, growing military capabilities and a regional tendency to conduct strategic policy in a militarised fashion.

So what can be done in the face of this emerging order? First, Asian states — particularly China and the US — need to develop crisis-management procedures similar to those used in the Cold War in order to ensure points of strategic friction do not spiral out of control. Second, Asian powers need to work to develop the foundations of a new regional order in which the many shared interests of Asian states can be realised. Both the existing institutions and dominant attitudes of key powers are currently preventing this from occurring. Third, the US and its allies need to recognise that China cannot possibly be content with its regional lot if American predominance remains in its current form. This does not necessarily imply a strategic retreat by the US, nor does it require caving in to every Chinese demand.

But it does mean coming to terms with the fact that America will not be able to pursue an Asian policy in which it is forever the dominant player
China’s recent behaviour could turn out to be beneficial to all if strategic policy makers on both sides of the Pacific can learn the right lessons and take steps toward a more stable regional order. But if both China and the US continue on their current paths, then East Asia is likely to be manifestly worse off.

By Nick Bisley Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University and a Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center, Washington, DC.
A version of this article was first published here in Global Asia.

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