China-US Reconciliation and the East Asian Security Order
Image Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

China-US Reconciliation and the East Asian Security Order


Originated in the aftermath of World War II and modified in the early 1970s, the current East Asia security order is primarily based on two pillars: The reconciliation between China and the United States in 1972, and the bilateral alliance treaty system established in the early 1950s. The former pillar ended the animosity and Cold War between the continental China and maritime U.S., while the latter served as a guard against the Soviet threat and a reassurance against any potential threat China may pose in the future. The reconciliation and the ensuing engagement with the outside world led to more than thirty years of unprecedented, continuous economic growth in China, dramatically changing the power architecture in East Asia. Meanwhile, the treaty system has guaranteed the stability and openness of the maritime order in East Asia and U.S. maritime hegemony in the Western Pacific.

Nevertheless, this order is not without its shortcomings. Basically, it suffers from four flaws. First, the reconciliation between China and the United States was not based on common values or ideological affinity, but on a common anti-Soviet interest. It therefore lacks a solid foundation and is vulnerable to exogenous influences. Once the common threat from the Soviet Union evaporated, relations between China and U.S. were always going to be at risk of souring due to obvious differences in values, political systems, and cultures, and indeed this did happen in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War.

Second, the bilateral alliances were aimed at containing China when they were established in the 1950s. Even though the Soviet Union became the main target after the reconciliation between China and the U.S., China never disappeared entirely from the radar. Since the collapse of Soviet Union, China has once again loomed large in the alliance calculations.

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Third, the East Asia security order as modified in the 1970s is a bifurcate order, with China as a continental land power in East Asia, and the U.S. as a maritime power in the Western Pacific. What East Asian security lacks is an integrated order that links both the continental land and the littoral area surrounding East Asia. Lastly, once China turns its attention to the sea and transforms itself from a continental power into a dual continental-maritime power, avoiding conflict with the U.S. and reconciling their respective interests will become serious challenges.

The East Asian security order experienced its first shock wave in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union eroded the foundation of China-U.S. reconciliation. With the demise of the Soviet Union, China lost its strategic value and the rationale for reconciliation with China became a question. China is no longer seen as a strategic partner to work with, but as an ideological “other” and a problem to be addressed.

China then took the Soviet Union’s place and became the glue that justified the continuing existence of the bilateral alliances. China is increasingly seen as the real or potential threat that the alliances should guard against.

Meanwhile, China and the U.S. each viewed the other’s moves in East Asia with suspicion, giving the inherent flaws of the bifurcate order full play. As a result, competition between China and the United States in East Asia intensified.

Since the beginning of the new century, and especially in recent years, the changing balance of power in East Asia has placed the security order under increasing pressure. After more than thirty years of double-digit economic growth, China has emerged as the biggest economy in East Asia and the second largest economy in the world. It is the main engine of economic growth in East Asia and around the world, while Japan is mired in economic trouble and has “lost” two decades since the 1990s, and the U.S. suffered in 2008 its most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, the repercussions of which linger today. At the same time, East Asia has seen a multitude of bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements centered around AESAN and driven by China. With its growing power, China’s economic influence is on the rise.

In this context, several “new challenges” have emerged for the East Asian security order. First, the “Thucydides Trap” between China and U.S. Though mainly a continental power, China is distinct at least in two ways. It has a long coastline of roughly 14,500 kilometers, where its most developed areas are concentrated. What’s more, China’s economic growth is highly dependent on overseas markets, energy and resources, making the maritime line of communications along the Indo-Pacific littoral vital to its economic development and national security. Consequently, as China grows, it is only natural that Beijing pays more attention to the littoral along its border and tries to build more capable commercial shipping and a stronger navy to protect its maritime interests. In the meantime, China has developed considerable A2/AD capabilities as a kind of strategic deterrent to compensate for lingering weaknesses with the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

China’s development of blue navy and A2/AD capabilities is viewed with great suspicion and worry by Washington, who thinks it will erode and even challenge the long U.S. dominance in the maritime Western Pacific. Many observers sense a growing probability of conflict between a rising, continental power and the established maritime power.

A second challenge is the regional competition for leadership between China and Japan. Japan has been an economic leader and engine in East Asia since the 1960s. However, this position has been under increasing pressure since the turn of the century – the Japanese economy was in fact overtaken by China’s at the start of this second decade. In recent years, Japan has made conspicuous efforts to develop its political power, clearly evidenced for instance in its efforts to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a move that has been stonewalled by China. As China grows stronger, its rivalry with Japan will intensify, and this has the potential to disrupt the East Asian security order, as relations are also haunted by intractable issues of history and maritime disputes, among other factors.

Maritime disputes are the third challenge. There are numerous disputes between and among East Asian countries, among which those that China has with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are the most volatile. Tensions between China and Japan intensified after 2010 and took a turn for the worse after 2012 when Japan decided to “nationalize” three of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which Beijing sees as unilaterally changing the status quo of the disputed islands. Relations between China and the Philippines have also deteriorated in recent years. As neither side will back down and nationalist sentiment in each country runs high, the disputes have the potential to turn ugly and even draw in the United States, a treaty ally to both Japan and the Philippines.

The North Korean nuclear issue is yet another challenge. In Northeast Asia, this has been a destabilizing factor since it first emerged in the early 1990s. So far this century, North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, causing great tension on the Korean Peninsula. Since 2003, the Six Party talks (China, U.S., North Korea, South Korea, Russia and Japan) has held six rounds of talks on the nuclear question and other North Korean issues, but have failed to achieve the primary goal of de-nuclearizing the peninsular. Since U.S. President Barack Obama took office, the Six Party talks have virtually ceased to exist.

The Obama administration’s response to the emerging East Asia power transition and ensuing security challenges can be summarized in his Asian pivot, or rebalancing, strategy, in which the U.S. seeks to balance China’s rising influence in Asia while continuing to engage with China. The rebalance also seeks to strengthen the U.S. alliance system in East Asia; nurture and expand security partnerships with India, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia; join and participate in regional multilateral forums to increase the U.S. political presence in East Asia; and promote TPP to drive regional economic integration.

But the problem or difficulty with the rebalance is this: How can Washington reconcile its balancing policy toward China with its increasing demand that China cooperate on both regional and global issues? How can it reconcile its increasingly burdensome responsibility in East Asia with a shrinking military budget? How can it balance its global responsibility with its commitment to East Asia? And how can it balance its relations with China with its commitment to its regional allies in East Asia?

As the world’s gravity of center shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indo-Pacific, and given the huge stakes China and U.S. have in maintaining peace and prosperity in East Asia, the two great powers – existing and rising – should join hands and take joint responsibility for reshaping and building a sustainable and stable security order in East Asia. A second “grand bargain” or “grand reconciliation” similar to that made in 1972 is in order.

To begin with, China should recognize the legitimacy of U.S. interests and military existence in the Western Pacific. It should make clear to the U.S. that China will not challenge U.S. interests in East Asia, military alliances and EEZ activities included.

Second, the U.S. should recognize China’s legitimate maritime interests along China’s littoral, and not oppose China’s increasing maritime presence along the Indo-Pacific littoral.

Third, China should pledge not to resort to the threat or actual use of force to resolve maritime disputes.

Fourth, the U.S. should commit to restraining and managing its allies in East Asia, dissuading them for engaging in provocations or unilateral changes to the status quo in maritime disputes.

The ultimate objective must be to transform the bifurcate continental/maritime order into an integrated multilateral East Asia regional security architecture based on cooperation and coordination among China, the U.S., Japan, and ASEAN.

Wei Zongyou, is Professor and Vice Dean of Institute of International and Diplomatic Affairs, Shanghai International Studies University, Shanghai, China. His main research interests cover Sino-U.S. Relations, American Foreign Policy, Humanitarian Intervention and R2P. The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the institute, or any official institutions. 

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