Can China Reshape Asia’s Security Architecture?

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Can China Reshape Asia’s Security Architecture?

Though Beijing’s proposals deserve a listen, it also needs to adjust its message.

Can China Reshape Asia’s Security Architecture?
Credit: Xiangshan Forum

Last week, I was in China for the seventh Xiangshan Forum, an annual Track 1.5 defense meeting often portrayed as a rising competitor to the more established Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. In his opening address to the forum, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin articulated China’s vision for improving the regional security architecture. Though Liu’s speech was just the most recent iteration of Beijing’s position on this issue, it did spark some conversation and debate among the participants about the extent to which China would be able to shape Asia’s security architecture.

Liu began his speech by defining what he saw as the five key elements of the existing architecture: the U.S.-led alliance network; ASEAN-centered institutions; special mechanisms such as the six party talks; regional security groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO); and various Track 1.5 and Track 2 forums including the Xiangshan Forum. He then proceeded to sketch out the outlines of China’s vision for “a new regional security architecture.” The new regional security architecture, Liu said, should be guided by five elements: 1) China’s new security concept – which advocates common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security; 2) regional and international norms, including the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and the ASEAN Way; 3) partnerships rather than Cold-War era alliances; 4) a comprehensive and multi-layered network of bodies, with a focus on improving existing institutions rather than creating new ones; 5) the promotion of common development and prosperity.

The temptation among some would be to immediately dismiss Beijing’s proposal altogether as a hollow anti-American quest for regional dominance. That would be a mistake for several reasons. First, within the region, China is in fact only one of several countries currently involved in conversations about the shaping of Asia’s security architecture. The East Asia Summit (EAS) Workshop on Regional Security Architecture, for instance, has been considering various proposals from major players – including Indonesia, India, Russia and China – and there are unsurprisingly a range of views on this question. We do these rich regional conversations and the various participants in them a great disservice when we portray them as being dominated by China or a tussle between just Beijing and Washington.

Second, dismissing China’s proposals would undermine decades-long efforts to embed the country in the region’s multilateral framework. Whatever value one may attach to multilateralism in general, most Asia-Pacific countries have grasped the simple reality that a China that engages in regional institutions is better than one that is isolated from them and acts unilaterally. That is why some Southeast Asian states actively encouraged Beijing to be part of bodies like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in the early 1990s in the first place in spite of its initial resistance to do so. Given China’s growing capabilities and increasing comfort in these institutions over the past two decades or so, it is only natural that it would now want to not only participate, but help contribute in shaping Asia’s future. To initially give Beijing a seat at the table but then refuse to listen when it speaks up later on makes little sense.

Third, and on a related note, dismissing China’s proposals would only confirm the suspicions of some in China – irrespective of how misguided they may be – that the existing regional order is not prepared to sufficiently adjust to account for Beijing’s status as a major power in the Asia-Pacific. Ongoing conversations about the regional security architecture and global institutions more generally reflect the broader challenge that the international community faces today: to restructure the decades-old institutions of regional and global governance to accommodate rising powers including China so that they are sufficiently invested in the existing order. If the world truly fears Beijing veering towards a more revisionist path and wants it to act as a “responsible stakeholder,” then it must take China’s efforts to contribute seriously and empower those voices who support the country’s continued investment in the current order,.

Fourth and lastly, dismissing China’s proposals out of hand may either forego useful inputs or miss opportunities to help shape them in more positive direction. To be sure, Beijing’s proposals for Asian security architecture do come laced with some unconstructive rhetoric, including, for instance, rants against the existing U.S. alliance and partnership network which many countries including China have actually benefited from in some ways for decades. But Beijing has already proven that it can contribute new ideas in the economic realm that meet the needs of Asian countries, with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative being two recent cases. Though doing so in the security realm may be a taller order, there is no reason why China’s input on issues like the rules and norms that ought to govern the regional architecture or how institutions should operate should be ignored.

That said, China too needs to do its part to assuage fears about its true intentions and clarify existing doubts about its proposals. First, China needs to address concerns that its proposals are part of a wider attempt to dominate the region. While Chinese officials are fond of making grandiose statements about the quest for innovation and the need for ideas to come from the region itself, to some Asian watchers that throws into question Beijing’s deference to the existing, ASEAN-centric nature of the current architecture as well as its commitment to inclusiveness, even if those statements are followed by the usual disclaimers typically thrown in for reassurance.

When China speaks of a “new regional security architecture,” as Liu did again at this year’s Xiangshan Forum, but does not outline exactly how that squares with ASEAN centrality beyond acknowledging the principle itself, that only plays into fears about Beijing’s true intentions. And when Asian countries detect Chinese attempts to fashion a security order based on Asian characteristics – whether they be direct as President Xi Jinping was in 2014 when he famously said “it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia,” or more subtle as they have been since – what they hear is a bald-faced effort by Beijing to downplay the role of capable outside actors like the United States to further its quest for regional primacy. Ironically, it is precisely this fear that has caused some ASEAN states to advocate for the greater involvement of other external powers in forums like the EAS, which undermines Chinese regional dominance irrespective of whether that was Beijing’s intended goal in the first place.

Second, more specifically, China needs to find a more constructive way of integrating other powers within and beyond the region, especially the United States, into its articulations about the regional security architecture. Liu’s speech, not unlike other past Chinese statements of the same ilk, waxed lyrical about Beijing’s contributions while railing against “the Cold War mentality” “bilateral military alliances,” and even the “rules-based order”. Though these may be meant largely as not-so-subtle digs at the United States or attempts at solidarity with like-minded countries such as Russia, they ruffle the feathers of many Asian countries who recognize the value of the U.S. alliance and partnership network and international rules and norms for regional peace and prosperity, even if Beijing may not want to admit it.

Worse, by making such statements, China makes itself more vulnerable to the charge that it is unnecessarily casting the shaping of the regional security architecture as a zero-sum competition between Beijing and Washington, thereby subscribing to the very Cold War mentality Beijing would like to see eradicated. By contrast, statements that at least acknowledge the value of the contributions that others including the United States, Japan and Australia have made, or even leave out anti-Western rhetoric altogether, would be viewed as more constructive and less conflictual.

Third, China needs to acknowledge that its worrying conduct on several fronts in the regional and international stage inevitably raises doubts questions about its intentions and undercuts its message. Liu’s speech included a customary nod to ASEAN centrality, warned against zero-sum thinking, and dwelt on China’s conception of what the rules and norms of the security architecture should be. But can China really blame Asia-Pacific nations for doubting its commitment to ASEAN centrality given its recent attempts to divide the regional grouping? (See: “What Really Happened at the ASEAN-China Special Kunming Meeting“). Along similar lines, how can China condemn zero-sum thinking on the one hand while on the other hand engaging in exactly this kind of mentality when it publicly criticizes Singapore for its perceived drift towards the United States, or privately chides others like Myanmar when they do the same? And what does China’s refusal to participate in and adhere to the arbitral tribunal’s July 12 ruling – replete with bizarre ad hominem charges against the court – say about its adherence to laws and norms when things do not go its way? (See: “What the South China Sea Ruling Means“).

To be sure, China is hardly the only major power which uses multilateralism selectively, flouts international rules, and engages in zero-sum competition when it suits it. But just like the other powers who have previously engaged in such behavior, including the United States, Beijing risks appearing hypocritical and undermining its own message when its rhetoric appears to be departing so far from reality.

Conversations about the regional security architecture are still very much ongoing, and they will roll over into 2017 with a series of meetings, including the 6th EAS Workshop on Regional Security Architecture hosted in Thailand and the next Xiangshan Forum in China. As those conversations evolve, China will continue to be a major voice. What exactly Beijing ends up saying and doing, and whether the world will really listen, remains to be seen.