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How China Plans to Beat the Rebalance

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China Power

How China Plans to Beat the Rebalance

China’s plan to supplant U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific.

How China Plans to Beat the Rebalance
Credit: Flickr/ Luo Shaoyang

In early January, China’s Foreign Ministry published a White Paper on “China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation,” signaling an intensification of China’s effort to establish itself as the dominant power in Asia and dislodge U.S. influence. Building on the country’s economic strength, China is challenging U.S. power in Asia at its source: America’s role as a security provider. The paper provides a glimpse into China’s ambitions by outlining a three-part strategy to build an alternative architecture, normalize U.S. acceptance, and enforce regional compliance with Chinese leadership preferences through rewards and punishments.

Since 1998, China has issued security-related white papers, but these have largely centered on developments related to the country’s military and national defense policy. The “China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperationwhite paper, by contrast, focuses on the broader strategic question of how to ensure security for the Asia-Pacific region. As such, it is the first official policy document to provide China’s view of its leadership role in Asia. An accompanying People’s Daily commentary noted that this is the “first time” China has “provided a systematically organized policy on Asia-Pacific security cooperation.”

Numerous high-level meetings paved the way for the policy. In 2013, China held its first work forum on foreign policy to the Asia-Pacific region. At the 2014 Shanghai summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), President Xi Jinping proposed a vision for how Asians could manage security for themselves. In 2016, Xi elaborated on his concept of Asia’s security at a follow on CICA meeting.

Drivers of Regional Security Policy

The issuance of a security policy for Asia reflects China’s view that it should assume duties befitting its status as a rising great power, as well as frustration with U.S. efforts to maintain its position in Asia. Decades of rapid growth have propelled China into the upper ranks of world powers, and it has sought to expand its leadership role accordingly. As the white paper put it, China regards the “advancement of regional prosperity and stability as its own responsibility [emphasis added].” China’s objection to American power owes in part to the potential threats posed by U.S. alliances and in part to problems inherent in divided regional leadership. From China’s perspective, an alliance with the United States emboldens neighbors to challenge Beijing and elevates the risk of a devastating U.S.-China conflict.

Chinese authorities also regard divided leadership along economic and security grounds as unsustainable and as an impediment to growth. In a 2015 commentary in the People’s Daily, Wang Yiwei, a professor at People’s University of China, explained that the “root cause of all kinds of security problems” lay in the fact that “Asian countries depend on China economically and on the United States for security.” The ideal of “community of common destiny” frequently invoked by Chinese officials expresses a similar idea that the economic and security leadership should be mutually reinforcing. Applied to Asia, Foreign Minister Wang Yi has explained, this “community” is one in which the “two wheels of economic and security cooperation move together.” Not surprisingly, Chinese commentators have accordingly leveled harsh criticism of U.S. leadership in Asia. A representative commentary in People’s Daily last year accused the United States of seeking to “strangle the new East Asian order that was taking shape.”

U.S. authorities have countered such criticism by seeking stronger cooperative ties with China, even as Washington undertakes a “rebalance initiative” aimed at shoring up its influence in Asia. But such engagement has scarcely mitigated China’s resentment of the rebalance. A typical commentary in the official news agency, Xinhua, denounced the rebalance as “corrosive to the region’s peace and stability.” It said that to realize regional peace and prosperity, the United States should “come up with an epitaph to the pivot.”

More than harsh criticism will be required to dislodge the United States, however. The white paper summarizes a three-part, long-term strategy to entrench Chinese leadership and devitalize the rebalance. First, China aims to provide competitive alternatives to the main features of the U.S.-led security architecture. Second, Beijing aims to normalize U.S. and other great power acceptance of the emerging order. And third, China intends to incentivize regional compliance through rewards and punishments.

An Alternative Security Architecture

Beijing’s proposed security architecture competes directly with many aspects of U.S. ambitions. In a Fact Sheet published in 2015, the Obama administration defined the rebalance in terms that include: 1) a vision for Asia and the Pacific; 2) a deepening of relationships; 3) the advancement of a rules-based regional order; and 4) the promotion of cooperation on global issues. The below subsections contrast China’s with the U.S. approach for these elements.

Competing Visions

The U.S. Rebalance Fact Sheet outlined a vision of a “stable and diversified security order” in which countries “pursue their national objectives peacefully and in accordance with international law and shared norms and principles.” It stated that the United States seeks to “build a network of like-minded states that sustains and strengthens a rules-based regional order and addresses regional and global challenges.”

China’s white paper offers a competing vision at odds with key elements of the U.S. view. China’s vision centers on “common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security.” It defined “common security” as one that “rejects the idea of security for some countries while leaving the rest insecure.” This directly contradicts the idea of a network of states that share “like-mindedness” with the United States. Indeed, the white paper pointedly argues that a “strengthening of military alliances targeted at a third party is not conducive to common security.”

The white paper defined “comprehensive security” as one that required taking into “full account the historical background and reality” of security-related affairs. This rejects the U.S. idea that disputes should be mediated according to international rules and claims legitimacy instead for “historical facts” raised by China and the “reality” of Beijing’s views. The white paper explained that “cooperative security” prioritizes “dialogue and cooperation” as the main means of “increasing strategic mutual trust” and resolving differences. This idea does not inherently conflict with the U.S. vision, although it does imply alliances are not necessary. The white paper defined “sustainable security” principally in terms of a focus on “development.” In calling for a “synchronized progress of regional economic and security cooperation,” this idea by definition prioritizes China’s preferences over those of the United States since China plays a larger role in driving the region’s economic integration.

Competing Views of Rules and Order

The U.S. Rebalance Fact Sheet highlighted the pursuit of a “rules-based order” featuring strengthened “regional institutions,” “good governance,” and “universal values” such as “respect for human rights” and “fundamental freedoms.” Once again, the white paper presents a contrasting view. It argues that all countries in Asia [i.e., China] should determine the rules. The white paper stated international and regional rules should be “discussed, formulated and observed by all countries concerned,” rather than being “dictated by any particular country.” As an example, the white paper listed the Chinese originated “five principles of peaceful coexistence” as a “universally recognized law” that should be “abided by” in resolving maritime dispute issues.

Competing Security Relationships

The U.S. rebalance prominently features the development of a “network” of alliances and partnerships. China rejects the idea of alliances. In a 2014 speech, Xi warned countries against strengthening alliances. The white paper builds on China’s long-standing opposition by urging all countries to “pursue partnerships rather than alliances.”

Chinese official media since 2014 has highlighted “partnerships” (huoban guanxi伙伴关系) as an important idea in contemporary foreign policy.  Diplomatic officials regard a partnership as a flexible category of bilateral or multilateral relationship distinguished principally by cooperation between non-allied parties to achieve mutually profitable goals. Wang has explained that partnerships are characterized by “equality and inclusiveness” and they are “not directed against a third party” Partnerships include both weak varieties in which little is shared and robust ones between like-minded countries that collaborate on sensitive political and even military endeavors. As Wang explained, “Those who share a common goal and cherish the same ideal can become partners, and so can those who put aside minor differences in order to seek common ground.” Writing in Seeking Truth, Wang stated that China established an “initial network of partnerships” in 2014.

Although Chinese authorities oppose alliances, they recognize their appeal. The white paper recommends countries retain the form of alliances, but deprive them of potency. It called for “relevant bilateral military alliances” to become “more transparent and avoid confrontation,” so as to “play a constructive role” in promoting regional peace and stability. These suggestions amount to a recommendation that alliances support China’s efforts to build a regional security order and avoid actions that Beijing finds objectionable.

Competing Venues for Cooperation

While both countries agree on the need for cooperation to address security challenges, China advocates institutions and mechanisms in which it plays a leading role, rather than those that depend on U.S. alliances and initiatives. However, China recognizes the reality that U.S. power will persist. Accordingly, for the medium-term, at least, the white paper affirms the likelihood that Chinese led mechanisms will co-exist alongside U.S. based ones.

To cope with this situation, the white paper called for “improving” and increasing “close coordination” between the existing mechanisms. It noted the “diversity” of institutions, such as the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and CICA, “as well as military alliances formed in history.” Acknowledging that a “consistent framework is not foreseeable in the near future,” the white paper anticipated a transition period in which “multiple mechanisms advance together in the evolution of a regional security framework.” The white paper does not preclude a role for the United States. Indeed, it called on “major powers to jointly promote a regional security framework.” However, the outcome of such collaboration should be “based on consensus,” which suggests China seeks greater say over the U.S. role.

The white paper also outlines a larger role for the PLA in promoting stability, combating transnational threats, and maintaining peace. The white paper stated China’s armed forces “make positive contributions to the maintenance of regional stability.” It also explained that the PLA will “intensify military exchanges and cooperation to offer more guarantees for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.” This again contrasts with China’s desire to see a reduction in the U.S. military’s presence and posture in Asia, which Beijing regards as threatening.

Normalizing Major Power Acceptance

China’s ambition to overhaul the region’s security architecture faces a major hurdle in the form of potential opposition from the current leader, the United States. Another danger lies in the potential collaboration of other major powers, such as India or Japan. The white paper advocates cooperation and coordination as a means of avoiding war and normalizing gradual acceptance of the emerging security order.

The white paper builds on a recent development in official foreign policy thinking that distinguishes between the role of major and minor powers. The shift in official parlance towards describing China as a “major power” reflects both the reality of the country’s national strength and a long-standing belief that the world is moving towards a multi-polar era. In this understanding, major powers coordinate amongst one another in bilateral and multilateral venues to address threats while respecting the authority of one another in their respective geographic areas. The white paper hails this “new type of major power relations” as one defined by “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and mutually beneficial cooperation.” The white paper illustrates its application in Asia, identifying China, the United States, Russia, India, and Japan as major powers that should “jointly promote a regional security framework” to “effectively deal with the increasingly complex security challenges in the region.” The paper also calls on “small and medium-sized countries” to “not take sides.” This point reinforces the idea that smaller powers should follow the lead of the major powers responsible for managing the security order.

Enforcement of Chinese Leadership

The third part of China’s approach to establishing itself as the region’s security leader lies in enforcing its leadership. Since 2013, Chinese leaders have signaled their intent to use rewards and punishments to incentivize countries to accommodate Chinese political preferences, an idea well captured by the “profit-righteousness concept” introduced by Xi Jinping. The white paper and current events provides two examples of how China intends to enforce its leadership. The first example involves maritime security disputes, and the second concerns the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in South Korea. The white paper reiterates China’s stand on these issues. The implication is clear: relevant countries are expected to act on Beijing’s preferences. Those who support China will reap rewards, while those who do not will be punished.

Regarding territorial disputes, the white paper shows a remarkably sanguine view. It states, “Regional hotspot issues and disputes are basically under control.” Although authorities remain intent on defending Chinese claims against encroachment, this assessment suggests leaders are focused on the much bigger prize of securing regional leadership, rather than squander such an opportunity for the sake of fighting over desolate maritime features. The paper argued that the “region should follow the tradition of mutual respect, seeking common ground while reserving differences, and peaceful coexistence, and work to solve disputes properly and peacefully through direct negotiation and consultation.” Philippine President Duterte’s decision to heed this advice and downplay the dispute in favor of warmer ties with China yielded generous pledges of $24 billion in investment.

Regarding the THAAD deployment, the white paper observed, “forming Cold War-style military alliances and building global and regional anti-ballistic missile systems will be detrimental to strategic stability and mutual trust.” Beijing has responded to South Korea’s disregard for China’s preferences with economic and military retaliatory measures. Chinese pressure has driven down public support in South Korea for the THAAD deployment from 44 percent to 34 percent and made the deployment a divisive election issue.


By undercutting the most compelling justification for U.S. leadership role, the issuance of a security policy poses a serious challenge to the U.S. position in Asia. Replicating its approach in the economic domain, China seeks to create alternatives to the institutions and mechanisms that underpin U.S. power. China’s variants in some cases may compare poorly to that of the United States. Partnerships may offer benefits, for example, but they lack the assurance and close ties of alliances. But this may matter less than commonly assumed if countries decide that the entire package of economic and security goods offered by China leadership surpasses what the United States can provide. It is possible to envision a situation in which countries increasingly opt to follow China’s lead, even as they formally uphold alliances and partnerships with the United States as “insurance” against Chinese misbehavior. Warning signs of this possibility may be seen in Duterte’s moves towards closer security ties with China and the debates in Australia over proposed security arrangements that downplay traditional alliance obligations.

If China succeeds, a United States that finds its influence waning could be tempted to rely on military strength to uphold its status. Statements by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson threatening to impede Chinese access to the South China suggest senior U.S. officials may already be contemplating such a path. Although tempting, the adoption of militarily confrontational policies would not only spur China to redouble its efforts to marginalize the United States, it would raise the risk that the two competitors for regional influence could head down the tragically well-trodden historical path to conflict.

China’s rise cannot be denied, and a blended security architecture featuring Chinese and U.S. elements may well be the only way to resolve fundamental differences in a manner that does not lead to war. If so, the paramount task for both sides will be to mobilize resources and effort to shape the terms of the evolving order. To bolster its leverage, America will have to work harder than ever to engage the region across a broad range of issues. But the prize of economic benefits gained by ensuring U.S. access to an increasingly vital part of the global economy provides a powerful incentive. Paradoxically, the Trump administration is likely to find that progress on its domestic agenda will depend on the progress of America’s competition for influence in Asia.

Timothy Heath is a Senior International Defense Research Analyst with the RAND Corporation. This article originally appeared in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief.