Rising Tensions in East Asia?

This speech was delivered as the keynote address at the conference of the same name: “Rising Tensions in East Asia? A Transatlantic Perspective.” For the presentations, photographs, and full summaries of all three panels, visit the event page.

All eyes are turned on the Ukraine, Russia, the Middle East and ISIS, but to disregard East Asia would be a mistake. Here too, rising tensions present reasons for concern. The fear of increasing dangers can be further understood when examined from a transatlantic perspective. This perspective never has been one of defensiveness confronted with change. One of the virtues of the transatlantic world has always been openness for change and the chances it offers, chances that benefitted the industrialized world. This has been true in particular when the rising powers became a cause for newer forms of globalization. Concern is necessary only insofar as we might miss chances only because of regional conflicts that we fail to manage in time.

Over the past three decades, the United States, European Union and Asian countries have benefited from the security situation and political stability in East and Southeast Asia. The cause of that extraordinarily positive condition has been, purely and simply, peace. This region has seen a remarkable level of peace and stability ever since China’s war against Vietnam in 1978-79. This peace rests on three pillars: one is the United States’ role as guarantor of stability in the face of riskssuch as those emanating from North Korea; the direct nuclear threat as well as the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The second pillar is the gradual economic integration of the countries of Southeast Asia, which has brought slow but continuous accommodation also of one another’s political interests and objectives along the way. The last pillar is the decision by China’s leader in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Deng Xiaoping, to set the country on a course of “peaceful rise” that made it the most important agent of economic growth in the world today. Thus the United States’ investment in the security of the region, and the awareness of the advantages of joint development in East and Southeast Asia, combined with China’s policy of good neighborhood together have contributed to the economic growth of not only countries in the region (arguably even North Korea), but also countries far beyond East Asia; the countries of the South profited through their increasing income derived from higher raw material prices owed to rises in demand. More than any other country in the region, China has profited — not only economically, but also politically — having turned into what is regarded as a future world power within thirty short years. Although North Korea may still be a high risk for the stability in the region, this is an unchanged risk that the countries of the region and outside of it have confronted for a long time; while unresolved and still dangerous, this risk is not an unknown. In Southeast Asia, despite lingering tensions between Thailand and Cambodia, the situation now is characterized by the least danger of armed conflict since the end of the Second World War. In Taiwan, no one expects an armed conflict anymore. If there is talk of rising tensions in East Asia, and apprehensiveness, then usually it is China, which is seen as responsible, or, more precisely, those tensions are seen as a consequence of China’s rise. This begs analysis, since, in contrast, the rise of Japan and the “Little Tigers” (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore) occurred without creating security tensions and conflicts. Why not in the case of China? The situation is often compared to that of Europe in 1914: a new and great rising power pushes for space for itself. That comparison is tempting, but it is not convincing; in the case of Europe before the First World War at least six powers were intertwined with one another economically and engaged in political conflict.

Since 2010 disconcerting developments in East and Southeast Asia have led the international observers’ discussion to increasingly fear and center around the possibility of an armed conflict. It seems that the very country, China, that has brought peace to the region for over thirty years today is displaying a behavior characterized by what the International Crisis Group terms “reactive assertiveness.” This to say that whenever a neighbor of China acts in a way that may be interpreted as an – even minor – provocation of China, China will assert itself robustly and change the overall situation to its advantage. When, for example, in May 2013 the Philippine navy tried to expel Chinese fishermen from the Scarborough Shoal reef, 130 nautical miles from the Philippine coast (and 550 miles from the Chinese coast), the Chinese navy intervened; today the reef is de facto in Chinese hands. Today, this same attitude is not seldomly evidenced by extra ordinarily clear – cut statements from some of the most responsible representatives of the country — statements that sound as belligerent as they seem to be meant. The question, therefore, is whether that behavior and the underlying attitude can lead to armed conflict by accident or by design. This Chinese “behavior” has both rhetorical and practical aspects. The practical aspects are diverse. They include, to name only the most recent ones – the declaration of an “Air Defense Identification Zone” over the maritime territories of neighboring states without prior consultation, combined with the threat to shoot down non-Chinese airplanes not abiding by the newly established rules in 2013; the scrambling of Japanese air force planes to a distance of but thirty meters in 2014; repeated stand-offs with the Philippine navy and fishermen over competing claims over islands close to the Philippine coast and similar efforts undertaken against Vietnamese ships, followed by the deployment of two oil rigs in waters claimed by both Vietnam and China in 2014; and lastly the deposition with the United nations of a territorial claim not grounded in the provisions of international law for practically the entire South China Sea.

It seems that the way in which China’s leaders regard the future role of their country in the region and the world has changed. Both the “peaceful rise” rhetoric and statements made only ten years ago to express the intention that China’s rise will remain compatible with the interests of its partners, have made room for a new way of thinking. Then-Foreign Minister and today’s State Councillor Yang Jieqi put it succinctly at the ARF ministerial meeting in Hanoi in 2010 when he said, “China is a big country, others are small countries, and that is just a fact.” The new Secretary General of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, before and since taking office in 2012 (and in 2013 as the new President of the People’s Republic) has consistently spoken of the “China Dream.” Xi has explained it on various occasions as the “resurrection” or “rejuvenation” of China, and has sometimes expressed somewhat more concretely, and using a definition of a 2010 book by a retired PLA colonel, as China to be again taking its “rightful place in the world.” When the security situation in Asia was discussed at the Shangri La dialogue forum in Singapore in May 2014, the Chinese representative, General Wang Guangzhong, explained that the present status quo in Asia is nothing but American hegemony — a status that needed to be changed. And finally, Xi Jinping himself laid out in his report at the “Conference of Interaction and Confidence Building Measures” (CICA) in Shanghai on May 21, 2014 that China “does not buy into the existing order” but needs to “find space to operate free from constraints,” and that “Asians” therefore must seek to create a “capacity and institution-building security cooperation framework” that is for Asians only. The role of a new normative power in Asia is the objective here. It is an objective that would give China the chance to shape its own rules, at least in its region (as used to be the case in various and differing ways in parts of East and Southeast Asia for almost two thousand years), rules that no-one knows what they would be. Xi Jinping himself and others try to make this kind of conceptual thinking acceptable to the United States. They do this by offering something like a great power condominium; as Xi said at the California meeting in 2013 to President Obama, “The Pacific is big enough for two.”

Unfortunately, such a great power condominium would not ensure that things change for the better, and then all would be well, which brings us back to the fear of the present tensions and dangers of armed conflict. Simply put, this is not the nineteenth century, when great powers could take the fate of smaller countries into their hands; this is also not the age when China had its – more or less – “rightful place” in the world. Here are some aspects to illustrate that point.

    • China’s democratic neighbors today have well-developed identities of their own, based in most cases on kinds of domestic social contracts (partly contested, partly still weak) that identify values and interests foundational to these countries’ roles — roles on which they depend for their economic and social development in the globalized world. There is little incentive imaginable for these countries to give up the kind of independence they presently enjoy, give it up to China.
    • America’s allies in the region benefit not only from America’s security guarantees, but also from their (certainly limited) integration into decision-making — whether with regard to questions of free trade, energy policy, climate change, or the development of the international order — in the United States and in Europe: Whenever there are major decisions to be taken, they are as a rule consulted with the countries affected by them; actors in the international arena feel accountable. Alliances with America seems to benefits these countries too much to be replaced by an American-Chinese condominium.
    • The international order, rules-based as it is, even when continuously challenged by changes in the character of the globalized world and diffusion of power in various directions, gives Asia a stake in the future development of a system that it has benefited from; it also gives a stake to other actors — such as Europe — in Asia’s development, the EU after all being China’s most important trade partner in the world. In return for readiness to accept responsibility for the rules the world follows and for helping to preserve the global commons, all actors, in — or outside of Asia — share the advantages of the continent’s rise.
    • The strength of the United States. “Decline” might be the term of the day. Yet, its economic power and its military might are not the only reasons that America’s role is attractive to its partners. More than the ability to “fight two wars at the same time,” it is the ability to manage – through disputes and adversities – a multitude of allies and partners such that in the end all can agree to arrangements benefiting most, and not only the US, and that is what makes American leadership acceptable. This is another kind of “soft power” regularly underestimated but the value of which is probably understood better if compared to the kind of robust “management” China presently presents as an alternative to American “hegemony.”
    • The opposition to Chinese intentions increasingly mounted by Japan. There are several aspects to the opposition, the major one being the question of how steadfast Japan stands at the side of the United States. The treatment of the question of Japan’s past serves as an instructive case in point for understanding the ways China tries to destabilize the Japan-US relationship. Japan’s way of dealing with its war-time past is surely problematic (leaving aside the singular characteristics of the Japanese-Korean relationship), to say the least. Mainstream public opinion supports the policy of accepting responsibility for Japanese atrocities during the war, but nonacceptance of this policy by very vocal parts of the elite puts into doubt the sincerity of past statements of contrition and apologies — even those made by the Japanese emperor himself. However, the way Chinese rulers have returned to matters they themselves declared settled and closed in the past – such as the question of indemnity payments or the demand of repetitions of past declarations of Japanese remorse – amount to a rather sinister instrumentalization of the Chinese peoples’ suffering. Inevitably, the way China takes hostage the theme of Japan’s supposedly unrepented past of its strategic, territorial, or other demands, provokes Japanese resistance to search for constructive solutions to bilateral problems between the two countries. Instead, tensions between these two major powers in East Asia, both extremely well-armed, increase. Consequently, Japan, together with the U.S.A,. in recent years has introduced measures of greater flexibility in Japan’s defense strategies, and initiated a new interpretation of its constitution in order to facilitate military support for the United States if necessary.
    • Lastly, China’s domestic situation is far from the days of Manchu rule. China is turning gradually into an ever more pluralist society — liberal economically and held together politically with the iron fist of the Communist Party. While at present it often seems as though the internet community in China is competing with the leaders in terms of nationalist fervor, the social situation is far from any “social contract” that would allow the leaders to pursue their “China dream” of perpetual Communist power, and the resurrection of the China of yore: a Mandarin-led autocratic, economically flourishing empire subduing disobedient neighbors as much as its own population.

In short, we have not just “tensions.” We are confronted with actual risks of armed conflict. These risks concern the U.S., and Europe and many others for an important reason. Two decades ago China was not the major economic partner for the U.S. and the EU that it is today, nor was it of the same strategic importance for the political and economic development of Asia and other countries in the world. Whether uncertainty about China’s future attitude and behavior turns into regional instability today is therefore of great security, strategic, and economic importance to the United States as a Pacific power, and it is of vital concern to Europe as well. In the case of a conflict, China would not only become less of a partner, but it would also bring crises to the industrialized world and to those countries that depend on Chinese demand for their sales of natural resources. This great importance and dependence, however, cuts both ways: China is at least as dependent on the EU and the U.S. as the other way around. An economic crisis in China might well turn into a social one; the rule of the CPC itself might be in danger. Therefore, the three sides need one another.

In a nutshell: The “resurrection” of China works in the military field, and in the field of jingoist propaganda, and in resurrecting a leader image with Mao-like capabilities. But has China “resurrected” itself as a country that others trust, feel close to and share values with? China as a great transformative power might be an advantage to the world. But by treating its neighbors the way it treats its own subjects back home, it only manages to raise the specter of a new, and untrusted hegemon.

What can be done? Already we observe how China’s neighbors make attempts to improve their relationships to one another in ways that would permit them to stand up to China’s “reactive assertiveness.” It does not always work out yet, because dependency on China is great in some cases (Cambodia, Laos); Myanmar, however, is an example of a country weaning itself from its overly great dependence on China’s economic and strategic demands. The United States’ policy of “rebalancing” militarily to Asia – the famous “pivot” – was welcomed in many countries of the region as though it had been long awaited. Since then, the rebalancing has turned out to be an effort that takes its time. Therefore, the U.S. will still have to work more intensely politically if it wants to credibly reassure its allies and partners of its reliability over a longer period of time. This reliability, in view of the dangers inherent in the present situation, must be a major objective in managing the present tensions and the inherent threats of accidental or designed armed conflict.

Neither the United States nor the countries of the region are aware that the European Union has problems in the Asian region similar to those of the U.S. For one thing, the European Union itself doesn’t seem to be aware of it — or at least it does not display much of its concern. Europeans and Americans assure one another of the communality of their interests and intentions in the economic and security sphere in East and Southeast Asia, as they did on the level of Secretary of State and the EU High Representative on July 12, 2012 in their joint statement. But that is not enough. Both need to recognize on the broader level of their societies that if they fall apart the interests of both will suffer (as already they sometimes do). The Europeans (i.e. the new Commission and the EEAS) need to analyze the contingencies of what is at stake with the increasing tensions in East Asia. In so doing they will achieve a recognition of the necessity to rebalance their own policies towards Asia and in Asia, and in so doing will become more viable partners for the United States and the other countries in the region. “Other countries” very much includes China – without China, peace and affluence in East Asia will not hold. In a nutshell, a European “pivot” toward Asia is necessary.

Then what? The list of problems China is confronted with, is almost a blueprint for a policy roadmap of its partners. First, of course, it would take an effort to bring China and its neighbors together in order to create a clear picture of what is at risk for all, security- and economy-wise: the continuation of Asia’s rise which we hope for is at stake — growth that can be created together, or otherwise might not continue at all any more. This will be difficult: China refuses to discuss problems it has with any of its neighbors in a multilateral context. But then there already exist fora which make such a discussion possible: the ARF, APEC, e.a. Next, a discussion of the advantages or disadvantages of a rules-based international system is necessary before China is set on a course that might destroy what already exists. This will be difficult as well. But hope must rest on the insights that Chinese experts of, and working in, international institutions have gained so far. Will it be possible to strengthen their influence upon the Party’s leaders? Only if it is clear that the latter benefit from working inside the international order. It may be that here the word of China’s neighbors has more weight than that of Western industrialized powers whom the CPC regards with distrust. Lastly, needed is a way out of the conundrum created by insisting that Japan “solve” the problems it has with its past. This is extremely difficult as it entails goodwill on the Chinese side – the will not to use the past as a political tool anymore, and to convince its own people that the problem is going to be resolved through reconciliation, not confrontation (or capitulation). This will only be possible when the basic conflict between China and Japan is resolved. But this is in the end nothing less than a conflict over the United States’ role in the Pacific. This step in the reconciliation process, therefore, may take time.

The path, however, is clear. Only if the United States coordinates policies with the E.U., if the E.U. is willing to invest political energy in East and Southeast Asia, and if both work closely with China’s neighbors, will it be possible to cooperate with China inside of an international system that (so China’s partners believe) serve China’s interests as much as others’, without precluding international competition and not disadvantaging anyone; a system that needs to adapt to the new shape of globalization as much as to the demands and needs of the new rising powers. But if this effort is not successful, tensions in the East and Southeast Asian region might escalate into a conflict that benefits no one. If it is successful on the other hand, it will be the fruit also of true and close transatlantic cooperation.

Ambassador Volker Stanzel is the former Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to Japan and the People’s Republic of China and now teaches political science at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.