Reassurance and Resolve in East Asia
As territorial frictions involving China and many of its neighbors persist in the East and South China Seas, the US needs a clearer regional strategy. America must simultaneously uphold its interests and alliance commitments and avoid counterproductive confrontation, or even conflict.
WASHINGTON, DC – As territorial frictions involving China and many of its neighbors persist in the East and South China Seas, the United States needs a clearer regional strategy. America must simultaneously uphold its interests and alliance commitments and avoid counterproductive confrontation, or even conflict.
Doing so will be difficult, especially because it is not clear whose claims to the region’s disputed islands and outcroppings should be recognized, and the US has no intention of trying to impose a solution. At the same time, the US must modernize its armed forces in response to new challenges – particularly China’s rise. As China develops advanced precision weapons to create a so-called anti-access/area-denial capability, the US must consider how to respond to the growing vulnerability of its bases and naval forces in the region.
There is no easy answer to these challenges. What is needed is a nuanced approach, which is what we develop in our new book Strategic Reassurance and Resolve.
Our approach is an adaptation of America’s longstanding “engage but hedge” strategy, through which the US and its allies have used economic, diplomatic, and sometimes military instruments to give China incentives to rise peacefully, while maintaining robust military capabilities in case engagement proves unsuccessful.
The problem is that hedging has typically been interpreted to mean sustaining overwhelming US military superiority. But China’s development and acquisition of advanced weapons, including precision anti-ship missiles, makes it implausible that the US can maintain its forces’ decades-long invulnerability in the region, including the ability to operate with impunity near China’s shores. Given China’s own history of vulnerability to foreign intervention, unilateral US efforts to maintain overwhelming offensive superiority would only trigger an increasingly destabilizing arms race.
Some American strategists advocate a largely technological solution to this dilemma. Their approach, a concept called “Air-Sea Battle,” implies a mix of defensive and offensive tools to address the new challenges posed by the proliferation of precision-strike weaponry.
Officially, the Pentagon does not direct the concept of “Air-Sea Battle” against any particular country. For example, Iran’s possession of precision-strike capabilities – and a much more hostile relationship with America – would warrant new US initiatives to cope with growing security vulnerabilities.
But it is clearly China, which has the resources to develop a credible anti-access/area-denial strategy, that most worries US military planners. Some Air-Sea Battle proponents propose tactical preemptive strikes on missile launchers, radars, command centers, and perhaps also air bases and submarine ports. Moreover, many of these attacks would be carried out with long-range weapons based on US territory, rather than at sea or on the territory of regional allies, because these assets would be less vulnerable to preemptive attacks themselves.
Unfortunately, Air-Sea Battle’s underlying logic poses serious risks of miscalculation – beginning with the name. Air-Sea Battle is, obviously, a concept for battle. Though the US clearly needs war plans, it also needs to be wary of sending China and regional partners the message that its hottest new military ideas base deterrence primarily on the ability to win a war quickly and decisively through large-scale escalation early in a conflict.
Air-Sea Battle recalls the AirLand Battle idea that NATO adopted in the late 1970s and early 1980s to counter the growing Soviet threat to Europe. But China is not the Soviet Union, and America’s relationship with it needs to avoid Cold War echoes.
“Air-Sea Operations” would be a much more appropriate name for a more effective approach. Such a doctrine could include classified war plans; but it should center on a much broader range of twenty-first-century maritime activities, some of which should include China (such as the ongoing counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and some military exercises in the Pacific).
Moreover, war plans need to avoid depending on early escalation, particularly against strategic assets on the Chinese mainland and elsewhere. If a skirmish erupts over a disputed island or waterway, the US needs to have a strategy that enables a favorable resolution short of all-out war. Indeed, in the broader context of Sino-American relations, even “victory” in such an encounter might be costly, because it could trigger a Chinese military buildup designed to ensure a different outcome in any subsequent skirmish.
Instead, the US and its partners need a broader range of responses that would enable them to adopt effective measures that are proportionate to the stakes involved – measures that demonstrate a willingness to impose meaningful costs without triggering counterproductive escalation.
Likewise, America’s military modernization agenda needs balance. Responding to the threat that China’s growing arsenal of advanced weapons poses to many of its assets does not require greatly expanding America’s long-range strike platforms. In fact, doing so would inevitably create incentives for US war planners to emphasize preemptive options in contingency plans and deemphasize American forces’ day-to-day presence in forward areas near China, where they contribute significantly to maintaining deterrence. And it would create a powerful incentive for Chinese war planners to develop further their country’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities.
Continued US engagement in the region requires it to heed the lesson of the Cold War: No technological fix will provide complete invulnerability. Economic and political measures, as well as a sustained US military presence, would be more effective than reliance solely on offensive escalation should the US need to counter Chinese actions that threatened important American interests. Indeed, relying on the capacity to attack the Chinese mainland to defend freedom of navigation and alliance commitments in East Asia could tempt China’s leaders to test America’s willingness to risk Los Angeles to defend the Senkaku Islands.
A more balanced US strategy to increase regional stability requires a judicious combination of resolve and reassurance, and a military posture that reflects this mix. This approach would give the US the best chance to induce China’s leaders to adopt a more cooperative approach to the region’s territorial disputes.
A New Order for the Indo-Pacific
China has transformed the Indo-Pacific region’s strategic landscape in just five years. If other powers do not step in to counter further challenges to the territorial and maritime status quo, the next five years could entrench China’s strategic advantages.
SYDNEY – Security dynamics are changing rapidly in the Indo-Pacific. The region is home not only to the world’s fastest-growing economies, but also to the fastest-increasing military expenditures and naval capabilities, the fiercest competition over natural resources, and the most dangerous strategic hot spots. One might even say that it holds the key to global security.
The increasing use of the term “Indo-Pacific” – which refers to all countries bordering the Indian and Pacific oceans – rather than “Asia-Pacific,” underscores the maritime dimension of today’s tensions. Asia’s oceans have increasingly become an arena of competition for resources and influence. It now seems likely that future regional crises will be triggered and/or settled at sea.
The main driver of this shift has been China, which over the last five years has been working to push its borders far out into international waters, by building artificial islands in the South China Sea. Having militarized these outposts – presented as a fait accompli to the rest of the world – it has now shifted its focus to the Indian Ocean.
Already, China has established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, which recently expropriated its main port from a Dubai-based company, possibly to give it to China. Moreover, China is planning to open a new naval base next to Pakistan’s China-controlled Gwadar port. And it has leased several islands in the crisis-ridden Maldives, where it is set to build a marine observatory that will provide subsurface data supporting the deployment of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and nuclear-powered ballistic missile subs (SSBNs) in the Indian Ocean.
In short, China has transformed the region’s strategic landscape in just five years. If other powers do not step in to counter further challenges to the territorial and maritime status quo, the next five years could entrench China’s strategic advantages. The result could be the ascendancy of a China-led illiberal hegemonic regional order, at the expense of the liberal rules-based order that most countries in the region support. Given the region’s economic weight, this would create significant risks for global markets and international security.
To mitigate the threat, the countries of the Indo-Pacific must confront three key challenges, beginning with the widening gap between politics and economics. Despite a lack of political integration and the absence of a common security framework in the Indo-Pacific, free-trade agreements are proliferating, the latest being the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). China has emerged as the leading trade partner of most regional economies.
But booming trade alone cannot reduce political risks. That requires a framework of shared and enforceable rules and norms. In particular, all countries should agree to state or clarify their territorial or maritime claims on the basis of international law, and to settle any dispute by peaceful means – never through force or coercion.
Establishing a regional framework that reinforces the rule of law will require progress on overcoming the second challenge: the region’s “history problem.” Disputes over territory, natural resources, war memorials, air defense zones, and textbooks are all linked, in one way or another, with rival historical narratives. The result is competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms that imperil the region’s future.
The past continues to cast a shadow over the relationship between South Korea and Japan – America’s closest allies in East Asia. China, for its part, uses history to justify its efforts to upend the territorial and maritime status quo and emulate the pre-1945 colonial depredations of its rival Japan. All of China’s border disputes with 11 of its neighbors are based on historical claims, not international law.
This brings us to the third key challenge facing the Indo-Pacific: changing maritime dynamics. Amid surging maritime trade flows, regional powers are fighting for access, influence, and relative advantage.
Here, the biggest threat lies in China’s unilateral attempts to alter the regional status quo. What China achieved in the South China Sea has significantly more far-reaching and longer-term strategic implications than, say, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as it sends the message that defiant unilateralism does not necessarily carry international costs.
Add to that new challenges – from climate change, overfishing, and degradation of marine ecosystems to the emergence of maritime non-state actors, such as pirates, terrorists, and criminal syndicates – and the regional security environment is becoming increasingly fraught and uncertain. All of this raises the risks of war, whether accidental or intentional.
As the most recent US National Security Strategy report put it, “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.” And yet while the major players in the region all agree that an open, rules-based order is vastly preferable to Chinese hegemony, they have so far done far too little to promote collaboration.
There is no more time to waste. Indo-Pacific powers must take stronger action to strengthen regional stability, reiterating their commitment to shared norms, not to mention international law, and creating robust institutions.
For starters, Australia, India, Japan, and the US must make progress in institutionalizing their Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, so that they can better coordinate their policies and pursue broader collaboration with other important players like Vietnam, Indonesia, and South Korea, as well as with smaller countries.
Economically and strategically, the global center of gravity is shifting to the Indo-Pacific. If the region’s players don’t act now to fortify an open, rules-based order, the security situation will continue to deteriorate – with consequences that are likely to reverberate worldwide.
China’s New World Order?
Now that Chinese President Xi Jinping has solidified his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, he will be able to pursue his vision of a China-led international order. But if China wants to enjoy the benefits of regional or even global hegemony in the twenty-first century, it will have to prove itself ready to accept the responsibilities of leadership.
CANBERRA – Two parallel geopolitical narratives have dominated the twenty-first century so far: the relative decline of the United States since the end of the post-Cold War period; and the rise of China as an economic, political, and military power. How China behaves on the world stage will thus be a defining geopolitical factor in the decades ahead.
Looking forward, China’s strategic vision will most likely mirror that of its president, Xi Jinping, who has now consolidated his position as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. In his marathon address to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on October 18, Xi proclaimed a new era of Chinese national strength, self-confidence, and global power.
Xi envisions a world in which China, having achieved geopolitical parity with the US, asserts itself diplomatically and assumes a larger role in writing the rules of the international system. Accordingly, the world should prepare for a surge in Chinese foreign-policy activism. To understand what form that activism will take, and what effects it will have on international relations, the insights of Project Syndicate commentators, who have long chronicled China’s emergence as a regional and global power, provide an invaluable resource.
Minding the “Thucydides Trap”
In its clear-eyed pursuit of parity with the US, China will surely benefit from the fact that the West is, according to former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, “increasingly self-absorbed, self-satisfied, and internationally complacent.” But as the global balance of power continues to shift away from the West, China will have to be mindful of new and growing risks.
For example, Harvard University’s Graham Allison and his co-author Arianna Huffington warn that China and the US could fall prey to the “Thucydides Trap,” so named for the classical Greek historian who observed that, “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this instilled in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” According to Allison and Huffington, what was true in the lead-up to the Peloponnesian War remains true today. “Over the last 500 years,” they write, “in 16 cases where a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power, 12 led to war.”
Given that the Asia-Pacific region is now the dynamic heart of the world economy, it stands to reason that China and the US will continue to jostle for strategic influence there. But could this game of power politics really escalate to the point of war? On one hand, China has built and fortified islands in the South China Sea; expanded its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Aden; and established a naval base in Djibouti. And it now surpasses all other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in its troop contributions to UN peacekeeping operations in Africa.
On the other hand, given the significant gap between China’s desire to project power to safeguard its far-flung economic interests and its ability to do so, Chinese leaders may not want to go too far in challenging the US. They are, says Keyu Jin of the London School of Economics, “well aware of how the Thucydides Trap has ensnared both the dominant power and the challenger, even after the challenger might seem to have won.”
They also know that China has been a principal beneficiary of the existing rules-based order, which is why Xi used his appearance at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in January to defend the global trade system against protectionist rhetoric emanating from the US. And at the CPC congress, Xi affirmed that, “No country can retreat to their own island, we live in a shared world and face a shared destiny.” Such considerations would seem to rule out China’s emergence as a revisionist world power.
But former US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution would rather not take any chances. The US must demonstrate such clear resolve in maintaining the international status quo that China will be deterred from disrupting it. Steinberg and O’Hanlon call on the “US and its partners” to develop “a broader range of responses that would enable them” to “demonstrate a willingness to impose meaningful costs without triggering counterproductive escalation.” And they recommend an “adaptation of America’s longstanding ‘engage but hedge’ strategy,” whereby the US gives “China incentives to rise peacefully, while maintaining robust military capabilities in case engagement proves unsuccessful.”
Still, while the US will be the dominant power in Asia for the foreseeable future, it cannot maintain full military, economic, and normative primacy there indefinitely. And Donald Trump’s presidency has called into question the future of the US-led postwar international order itself. Yet even before Trump announced his candidacy, Yoon Young-kwan, a former South Korean foreign minister, pointed out that China’s leaders have long believed “that the 2008 economic crisis and the high costs of two foreign wars have left the US in no position to exercise international leadership.”
The potential decline of the US-led international order, along with Xi’s bid to assume a larger leadership role on the world stage, immediately raises a host of critical issues. For starters, unlike nineteenth- and twentieth-century European powers, China has no historical, philosophical, or literary tradition upon which to base its conduct in a great-power system. Its inheritance is that of the Middle Kingdom, to which vassal states paid tribute. Similarly, the US has no experience in dealing with a rival like China. Even at its height, the Soviet Union was essentially a one-dimensional military superpower, whereas China is quickly emerging as a multidimensional power with a globally competitive economy.
Of course, another crucial difference between China and the Soviet Union is that the former has shown little inclination to export its authoritarian model, Xi’s rhetoric notwithstanding. China’s main focus, rather, has been on promoting political stability and domestic economic growth, by securing access to resources and markets abroad. The ultimate embodiment of this approach is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which, Shang-Jin Wei of Columbia University explains, “aims to develop physical infrastructure and policy linkages connecting more than 60 countries across Asia, Europe, and Africa.”
In Wei’s view, the BRI is exactly what the world needs now that the US and other “influential countries are turning inward, talking about erecting trade barriers and constructing border walls.” Similarly, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans acknowledges that Australia and other US allies and partners in Asia “can no longer – assuming we ever could – take coherent, smart American leadership for granted.” And he encourages all governments to “recognize the legitimacy of China’s new great-power aspirations, and engage with it non-confrontationally.”
Trouble on the High Seas
But Evans also warns that China needs to be resisted when it overreaches, not least in the South China Sea, where it has continued to defy a July 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague invalidating its territorial claims. Just this summer, Brahma Chellaney of the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research observes, China “threatened to launch military action against Vietnam’s outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands,” in order to prevent the Vietnamese government from “drilling for gas at the edge of China’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.”
China’s seemingly random maritime provocations do not always intimidate other governments to the point of backing down. But they do test America’s will and capacity to support its allies and strategic partners. In deliberately keeping its actions below the threshold of open warfare, China is seeking gradually to induce strategic fatigue in the US and its partners. The strategy seems to be paying off. In 2017 alone, the Philippines agreed to sizable trade and investment deals with China, Malaysia purchased Chinese warships, and Vietnam took steps to strengthen its diplomatic and military ties with China.
But that is not to say there hasn’t been pushback. According to Le Hong Hiep of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, China’s actions in the South China Sea have prompted Vietnam and Japan to deepen the “strategic partnership” that they forged in 2009. Hiep reports that Japan has pledged to provide Vietnam with “patrol boats to support its defense activities in the South China Sea,” in addition to selling Vietnam “two advanced radar-based earth observation satellites,” and possibly “second-hand P-3C anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft.”
And Vietnam is not alone. According to Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, China’s “rapid emergence as the foremost threat to regional stability” is driving an arms race in Asia. In fact, as of last year, the region accounted for “almost half of the world’s arms expenditure, which is more than twice the total arms expenditure of countries in the Middle East and four times greater than that of Europe.”
Trump’s past statements that US allies should see to their own defense certainly haven’t helped matters. But the real problem, Pongsudhirak argues, is the absence of a regional “framework to prevent, mitigate, and resolve territorial disputes.” Such a framework will never be viable without China’s participation; to secure it, Pongsudhirak recommends that “other interested parties step back a little and give China space to recognize the dangers of its own aggression.”
But even if China did see the error of its ways, Evans notes, it is “unlikely to abandon occupancy of any island, reef, or rock where it currently has a toehold.” He proposes a compromise that would allow China to save face. Among other good-faith gestures, Chinese leaders should be encouraged to put further reclamation activities on hold, and to agree to a negotiated code of conduct with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Alternatively, if the hardliners in Beijing prevail and China continues its aggressive behavior, Australia and others could decide to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) within 12 nautical miles of disputed areas under Chinese control. As Harvard University’s Joseph S. Nye reminds us, the US already set a precedent in 2013, when it flew two B-52 bombers through an Air Defense Identification Zone that China had declared unilaterally and without warning over the disputed Senkaku/Daiyou Islands in the East China Sea.
Unfortunately, with more FONOPs and similar operations, the likelihood of military incidents will increase. All parties would do well to heed the warning issued by former Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos when he served as a special envoy to China after the 2016 PCA ruling: tensions in Asia are not just about “rocks and atolls”; they are matters of “war and peace.”
The View From Beijing
Westerners might like to think that China’s deepening regional and global economic integration would prevent it from risking a conflict. But China does want to restore its historical status as a regional hegemon, not least through military rebalancing in Asia. And Chinese leaders might even be willing to bet that US leaders would back down rather than risk a costly confrontation. Many a corpse-filled river has run deep with such assumptions.
But it is important to view the situation from China’s perspective. As Steinberg and O’Hanlon remind us, China has a “history of vulnerability to foreign intervention.” And today, observes Minghao Zhao of the Charhar Institute in Beijing, “its coasts are, to some extent, encircled by Japan and the Philippines, both US allies, and Taiwan, with which the US maintains security ties.” Moreover, Zhao explains, Chinese leaders are not blind to America’s containment strategy in the region. Over time, the US system of “hub-and-spoke alliances” has morphed into a “networked security system across the Indo-Pacific theatre.”
Owing to this transformation, Zhao notes, Japan has greater “autonomy in security affairs,” South Korea has become host to an American missile-defense system, and India and Vietnam have been drawn closer into the US fold. And Chinese leaders certainly could not overlook America’s vain effort to stop its allies from participating in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Under these circumstances, Zhao explains, “China feels that it has no choice but to prepare for worst-case scenarios – an approach that is reflected in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s so-called ‘bottom-line concept.’”
In this context, China’s increased assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, and its flag demonstrations around Indonesia and Australia, could be viewed as attempts to push back against Western containment in its own region. The Chinese leadership, notes Bill Emmott, a former editor of The Economist, “believes that China ought to be able to project military power and defend what it regards as its strategic space – just like the US.” This poses a strategic dilemma for the US. A rising China cannot be expected to tolerate indefinitely the US’s intrusive military presence in the region. But a US policy of accommodation could unsettle its allies in the region, and signal a loss of resolve and credibility as a security guarantor.
Asia’s Great Game
Nowhere is the fear of American complacency more pronounced than in Japan and South Korea, the two countries where “today’s arms race in Asia might escalate beyond conventional weapons,” notes Yuriko Koike, a former Japanese Minister of Defense who is now Governor of Tokyo. Even before Trump arrived on the scene with his “muddled jingoism,” Koike explains, Chinese provocations had given Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enough political space to push for revisions to the pacifist clause of Japan’s post-World War II constitution.
Meanwhile, China has also stepped up its provocation of India. Chellaney reports that “this year, China decided to withhold [hydrological and meteorological] data from India, undermining the efficacy of India’s flood early-warning systems – during Asia’s summer monsoon season, no less.” And this summer, India and China were locked in a tense standoff, owing to China’s “stealth incursions” into India’s Himalayan borderlands. Just as “China’s naval forces follow fishermen to carve out space for the reclamation of rocks or reefs” in the South China Sea, Chellaney notes, so do its land forces follow in the wake of civilian “herders, farmers, and grazers.”
On August 28, China and India announced a diplomatic resolution to the Himalayan conflict. But it is anyone’s guess how long the peace will last. Over the past decade, China has been far less generous in accommodating a rising India than the US has been in accommodating China. Shashi Tharoor, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, sees a worrying pattern in China’s behavior, whereby its leaders respond to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “efforts at outreach with a series of insults.”
For example, in 2014, just after Modi welcomed Xi “to his hometown, Ahmedabad, on his own birthday,” Tharoor recounts, “Chinese soldiers promptly crossed the disputed frontier with India in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, going so far as to pitch tents on land that India considers its sovereign territory.” China has also vetoed India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and “built a ‘China-Pakistan economic corridor’ through Pakistan-controlled parts of Kashmir,” which “China itself recognizes” as disputed territory. And in April of this year, China lobbed a barrage of threats and recriminations at India after the Dalai Lama paid a visit to a historic Buddhist monastery in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
To Lead, or Not to Lead?
To many observers, this year’s escalating contretemps between the US and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear program should be an occasion for China to demonstrate more responsible leadership than it has shown elsewhere. As Hiep explained when Xi and Trump held their first face-to-face meeting in April, Trump seems to think that by threatening trade action against China, he can force China to “rein in the North Korean regime’s nuclear ambitions.” But in Hiep’s view, the Trump administration has been “overestimating China’s influence over North Korea.” After all, Kim Jong-un’s regime has continued its nuclear and missile tests “despite Chinese sanctions, which have halted coal imports from North Korea – the regime’s main revenue source.”
And besides, China’s leaders are not letting their personal distaste for Kim distract from their larger geostrategic goals. As Korea University’s Lee Jong-Wha points out, for China to do more, “it needs assurances that it will not immediately lose its strategic buffer on the Korean Peninsula.” Without such a guarantee, it will likely remain uncooperative, even if doing so damages “its relationships with the US, Europe, Japan, and South Korea – all of which are ultimately more valuable partners than the unruly, impoverished North Korea.”
One way forward, notes former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, is for all parties involved to adopt a broader diplomatic approach that starts “by addressing a fundamental issue at the heart of the problem: namely, that no peace treaty has ever been signed to end the 1950-1953 Korean War.” Such a dialogue, Bildt argues, “could pave the way for broader discussions about nuclear escalation and other threats to regional stability.” With China still committed to peaceful negotiations, this course of action could deliver maximum benefits at minimum cost.
But Emmott points out that there is an alternative to negotiations or a US-led military strike: China itself could intervene militarily, either to provide a security guarantee to the Kim regime, or to carry out a more orderly regime change. This scenario may seem far-fetched. But Emmott contends that it is not just plausible; it is also “China’s best opportunity to achieve greater strategic parity with the US in the region, while removing a source of instability that threatens them both.”
The Danger of Falling Short
As China grapples with the demands of regional and global leadership, it will have to watch out for not just the Thucydides Trap, but also what Nye calls the “Kindleberger Trap”: “a China that seems too weak rather than too strong.” The idea, Nye explains, comes from Charles Kindleberger, an American historian who “argued that the disastrous decade of the 1930s was caused when the US replaced Britain as the largest global power but failed to take on Britain’s role in providing global public goods.”
Pax Britannica was built on a system of legal colonialism and territorial control, which allowed Britain to extract, process, move, and use or sell ownership of vast natural resource endowments around the globe. Pax Americana, by contrast, was built on a system of market-accessing regimes, which granted the US control over resources, and facilitated a global flow of capital, goods, and technology. By building global markets instead of a global empire, the US escaped legal responsibility for the security and welfare of its neo-colonial dependents. And it convinced others that “global public goods” were essentially an outgrowth of US hegemony.
After 1945, America wrote the rules of the international order, and policed them for 70 years. The question now is whether China is ready to accept that burden. China is extending its power and influence through the BRI and other initiatives, and these efforts have allowed it to cement diplomatic ties, boost trade, and create energy corridors.
So far, however, China has failed to make regional and global public goods synonymous with Chinese national interests. And as Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College points out, the CPC itself “has become practically irrelevant in the daily lives of ordinary Chinese.” That may, as Pei suggests, limit Xi’s power. But if China’s leaders are to succeed at positioning their country for global leadership, their focus should be on maintaining economic growth and social stability at home, while nurturing alliances and influence that serve to preserve the existing rules-based international order. Otherwise, China’s rise will disrupt that order, implying near-certain regional and global volatility for years to come.
Securing the Rule of Law at Sea
The sources of instability in the Asia-Pacific region include not only the threat of weapons of mass destruction, but also – and more immediately – efforts to alter the territorial status quo through force or coercion. And those efforts are taking place largely at sea.
TOKYO – Japan is in a better position than ever before to play a larger and more proactive role in ensuring peace in Asia and the world. We enjoy the explicit and enthusiastic support of our allies and other friendly countries, including every ASEAN member country and the United States, Australia, India, the United Kingdom, and France, among others. All of them know that Japan stands for the rule of law – for Asia and for all people.
We are not alone. In most Asia-Pacific countries, economic growth has nurtured freedom of thought and religion, as well as more accountable and responsive political systems. Though the pace of such changes varies from country to country, the idea of the rule of law has taken root. And that means that the region’s political leaders must ensure respect for international law.
Nowhere is that need clearer than in the area of international maritime law. The Asia-Pacific region has achieved tremendous growth in the span of a single generation. Regrettably, a large and relatively disproportionate share of the fruits of that growth is going toward military expansion. The sources of instability include not only the threat of weapons of mass destruction, but also – and more immediately – efforts to alter the territorial status quo through force or coercion. And those efforts are taking place largely at sea.
Recently, US President Barack Obama and I mutually reaffirmed our countries’ alliance as the cornerstone of regional peace and security. Moreover, the United States and Japan are strengthening trilateral cooperation with like-minded partners to promote regional and global peace and economic prosperity. Already, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and I have agreed that we should do exactly that.
The history of international maritime law is long, stretching back to ancient Greece. By Roman times, the seas were open to all, with personal possession and partitioning prohibited. Since the dawn of the Age of Exploration, large numbers of people have crossed the seas for myriad reasons, and marine-based commerce has connected the world’s regions. Freedom on the high seas became a foundational principle for human prosperity.
No particular country or group created international maritime law as it now exists. It is the product of humankind’s collective wisdom, cultivated over a great many years for the wellbeing of all. Today, many benefits for humanity depend on the seas from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans remaining fully open.
But what, exactly, does that mean? If we distill the spirit that we have infused into international law over the ages and reformulate it as three principles, the rule of law at sea becomes a matter of common sense.
First, states should make and clarify their claims based on international law. Second, states should not use force or coercion in trying to realize their claims. And, third, states should seek to settle disputes by peaceful means. All three of these very simple – almost self-evident – principles must be emphasized, because all governments in Asia and the Pacific must uphold them rigorously.
Consider Indonesia and the Philippines, countries whose leaders have peacefully reached agreement on the delimitation of their overlapping exclusive economic zones. Likewise, my government strongly supports the Philippines’ call for a resolution to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea that is truly consistent with the three principles of international maritime law, just as we support Vietnam’s efforts to resolve conflicting territorial claims through dialogue.
Rather than attempting to consolidate changes to the status quo by piling one fait accompli upon another, the region’s governments should make a firm pledge to return to the spirit and provisions of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, to which all parties concerned previously agreed. In today’s world, countries should not fear that coercion and threats will replace rules and laws. I strongly hope that ASEAN member states and China can swiftly establish a truly effective code of conduct for the South China Sea.
Japan and China have an agreement that then-Premier Wen Jiabao and I concluded in 2007, during my first term as Prime Minister. We made a commitment to create a maritime and air communication mechanism in order to prevent unforeseen incidents between our countries from generating tensions and miscalculation. Unfortunately, this commitment has not translated into the implementation of such a mechanism.
We do not welcome dangerous encounters by fighter aircraft and vessels at sea. What Japan and China must exchange are words. Should we not meet at the negotiating table, exchange smiles and handshakes, and get down to talking?
I believe that following through on the 2007 agreement would advance the cause of peace and stability in the entire region. But I also know that ensuring long-term security will require many more agreements, each one a crucial strand in a region-wide web of freedom and prosperity.