In October, China hosted the seventh Xiangshan Forum in Beijing, during which Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin outlined a framework for a regional security architecture to meet the emerging challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Liu’s comments did not represent fresh thinking; he rather expanded upon an existing Chinese concept. Chinese strategists, pundits, academia, and government officials had discussed such an architecture among themselves for years until President Xi Jinping publicized what he called the “New Asian Security Concept” during the fourth Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in May 2014. A year later, the concept was raised again in the 2015 Defense White Paper. Most recently, China outlined its views in a white paper on “Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation.”
China’s concept was subjected to a considerable amount of analysis and commentary post-Xiangshan, notably by Dr. Alice Ekman and Prashanth Parameswaran. Ekman contends that Beijing has an unfolding plan for a new regional security architecture not based on any formal alliance system, but rather on weaving together a tighter web of existing organizations and entities and bending them toward Beijing’s desired strategic ends. Parameswaran argues that Beijing’s proposal has merits that deserve serious consideration and thus should not be rejected by the United States and others out-of-hand; however, Beijing needs to adjust its message to assuage the concerns of both Washington and regional neighbors who see benefit in a continued active role of the United States in Asian security. These countries clearly hope not to be forced to choose between U.S. security assistance and China-funded economic development.
U.S. and China: Dueling Visions
Washington outlined its own vision for Asian security in June at Singapore’s Shangri-La Dialogue, widely considered the preeminent multilateral dialogue on Asian security issues. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter presented the “Principled Security Network of Alliances and Partnerships,” in which a regional security network is derived according to norms and principles rooted in common interpretations of international law.
Liu countered at Xiangshan by introducing five organizing principles that outlined China’s vision for a new security framework: (1) common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security; (2) regional and international norms; (3) partnerships rather than alliances; (4) comprehensive and multilayered network of bodies focused on enhancing extant institutions vice creating new ones; (5) promotion of common development and prosperity. These same points are reflected in the white paper issued earlier this month.
Superficially, these two visions appear very similar; however, China’s aversion to formal alliances and desire to tie security more directly to economic interests differentiate Beijing’s proposal. Additionally, while Washington left open the possibility for Beijing to join the Principled Network and vice versa, for either country to participate in the other’s security architecture would signify acquiescence to their rival’s strategic vision, which may be too high an opportunity cost to be a realistic option for either government.
Xiangshan, established as a more Sino-friendly alternative to Shangri-La, served as the ideal forum for China to unveil a more comprehensive description of its vision to an international audience. Beijing perceives a strategic opportunity to attain regional leadership and greater global influence, given that Chinese policy makers project the United States will enter a period of “strategic contraction” under the new administration. New U.S. President Donald Trump has already announced its pending withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Beijing may assume the new administration will focus more heavily on domestic affairs.
Analysis of the “New Asian Security Concept”
The trumpeting of China’s blueprint for Asian security marks the latest step in Xi’s efforts to promote and drive a stronger regional role for China commensurate with its perceived status as a great power. The “New Asian Security Concept” envisions progressively displacing the U.S.-led security order by offering economic and security incentives in exchange for deference to China’s strategic prerogatives in the region. Beijing ultimately wants a Chinese sphere of influence in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, in which even U.S. security engagement happens only with Beijing’s blessing. Additionally, it may also tie together further countries vital to China’s continued economic success and supply lines.
To Beijing, China’s status as the preeminent regional power is the default state of affairs, and was lost during the “century of humiliation.” According to China’s logic, Beijing’s leadership of a responsible, inclusive regional security architecture not only builds regional deference to China’s security preferences but also frees up Washington to direct its attention to problems external to East Asia. This will, in theory, decrease bilateral tensions and promote both mutual trust and stronger relations between the two major powers.
It’s important to remember that Beijing’s economic and security goals are inextricably linked. China hopes to translate its growing economic clout into greater leverage over regional security affairs, as well as increased global influence. China’s ongoing efforts through the “One Belt, One Road” initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) signify Beijing’s steady acquisition of influence through economic development; in the mind of China’s leadership, the economic initiatives are not just ends in themselves but rather pave the way to a security architecture more palatable to potential member states. Security influence commensurate with Beijing’s already considerable economic influence signals a key milestone toward achievement of true great power status. China is becoming increasingly confident that it can lead the region, preferably with Washington’s tacit consent, but without it if necessary.
Potential U.S. Response
Xi’s first telephone conversation with Trump was noticeably missing standard Chinese catchphrases used to describe Beijing’s vision for the bilateral relationship, such as “New Type Major Country Relations,” a construct presented by Xi that sought to emphasize cooperation and avoid conflict. This avoidance presents a strategic opportunity to Washington to reset the conversation. The subsequent congratulatory call to Trump from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan followed by the president-elect’s comments on the “one China” policy provoked a storm of aggressive rhetoric and actions by Beijing intended to shape the incoming administration. Nevertheless, it may also have offered the United States an opportunity to reshape the relationship on more favorable terms to the Washington. The new Trump administration needs to be the first to offer new language, or new interpretations of existing language, and understand the underlying limitations that arise from accepting China’s terms. In this iterative bargaining, the first to lay out a strategic vision for the bilateral relationship controls the narrative and consequently the strategic initiative.
Despite Beijing’s “win-win” characterization, China’s offers to “reset” bilateral relations are largely designed to facilitate Beijing’s great power ambitions. China’s comprehensive approach to the bilateral relationship must thus be taken into account. If the U.S. addresses the bilateral relationship in a disjointed fashion in which security and economic concerns are addressed separately, Washington will only be able to react to Beijing’s actions.
China’s authoritative media describe a pending U.S. strategic contraction from the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and the positive steps Beijing will take to fill it. This contraction is broadly assumed to be inevitable; this presents a strategic narrative that China is using to influence decisions in capitals around the region. Hence, the new U.S. administration should work to align their highest-order talking points on the Indo-Asia-Pacific as soon as possible and close the vacuum Beijing is already trying to fill.
Beijing’s implementation of a new security architecture poses one of the most holistic strategic challenges currently faced by the United States. China does not seek to create this architecture from scratch; Beijing will weave together existing arrangements, enabling them to move quickly and avoid lengthy negotiations on the establishment of new structures. The potential implications are significant. Smaller regional countries may find themselves forced to choose: partner with China as a “string” tied to economic development initiatives, or partner with the United States, long a security partner of choice for many regional countries.
In recent years, Beijing increasingly seeks a leadership role in line with its considerable economic clout. Achievement of an equivalent level of security influence will confer to Beijing not just great power status, but also the ability to dictate its security preferences in the region, and beyond. Washington must clearly understand the implications of China’s vision in order to maintain its preeminent position in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. The presidential transition offers a small window of opportunity to respond accordingly and shift the terms of discussion to favor the United States.
Major David C. McCaughrin is a career army officer with extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.