This year has been eventful. What does this year mean for China's regional security and situation in Asia? Two research scholars with a think tank and a strategy expert present their views.
Zhang Jie and Zhong Feiteng
Caution the catchword for China
A series of events have taken place around China this year, which may have a far-reaching impact on its security. Four factors have changed China's security environment, and it should tighten its regional security management on five fronts.
The first change is related to the United States. The US remains the bellwether with its "flying geese" security structure. The US-Japan and US-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliances make up the second section of the US security chain, the relationship between the US and Australia, Thailand and the Philippines form the third, and the ties between the US and Vietnam, Indonesia and India make up the fourth.
The US emphasizes the importance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a pivot of multilateral body in the region and undertakes to improve India's status in the international community, and its fourth security segment will help it to shape (or reshape) the regional order.
Contrary to American politicians' claim, Washington's participation and leadership in various institutions across Asia Pacific are aimed at maximizing US interests. The US changed its Asia strategy in a hurry to return to Asia, complicating China's relations with its neighbors further and weakening their political mutual trust.
Second, the most vulnerable link in China's security environment lies in Northeast Asia. The situation on the Korean Peninsula serves as a barometer of the regional security situation. This year has witnessed the sinking of the ROK's corvette Cheonan and exchange of fire near the western maritime border of the Korean Peninsula, creating the most serious crisis since the armistice ended the 1950-53 Korean War. The US jumped into the fray immediately after the exchange of fire and has held several military drills with the ROK and Japan in the waters around the Korean Peninsula. The drills, unprecedented in scale and intensity, have given rise to the US-Japan-ROK military alliance.
Since China has always believed that only equal dialogue can ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and resolve the Korean issue, it proposed to hold emergency consultations among the heads of delegation to the Six-Party Talks. But it was ignored by the US, the ROK and Japan. The continuing tension on the Korean Peninsula and Washington's strategic squeezing of Beijing have created challenges for China.
Third, maritime security has become an important concern for China. And since China will not give up its core interests in the disputes in the South China Sea or over the Diaoyu Islands even if the disputing sides get close to the US, Beijing faces a deteriorating maritime security environment.
Fourth, the rise of non-traditional security problems is affecting China's relations with its neighbors. This year has seen the rise of non-traditional security problems, such as floods and the use of water from cross-border rivers, which pose a challenge for China's public diplomacy.
The expansion of common interests of China and its neighbors face a hurdle, too, because of the US' involvement, and it is unlikely that China will get peace in return for compromising its economic interests. Since in all likelihood the future order in Asia Pacific depends on a contest between Beijing and Washington, China should readjust its diplomatic strategy with its neighbors on five fronts.
First, China should use economic means in its diplomacy prudently, just as it has done this year to maintain the peaceful environment around it. But it has to conduct more strategic research on the international market and further evaluate its economic strategic capability. Theoretically though, the effectiveness of its economic policies depends on the sensitivity and vulnerability of the other side.
Second, the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP) will be a rival to the 10+3 (ASEAN plus China, Japan and the ROK) mechanism and may render the latter almost useless. It is obvious that the US will participate in regional trade more energetically to invigorate its economy. Since Washington enjoys overwhelming superiority in TPP, it will promote the partnership agreement for its own economic and security interests.
Besides, Japan and the ROK are likely to join the TPP, so the US to some extent will try to undermine the prospects of the ongoing negotiations among Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul to establish a triangular free trade area. And it is clear that the TPP also poses a challenge to the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area.
Third, India has improved its trade relations with the US and is trying to forge closer ties with Japan. These developments can affect China's economic competitiveness in the region and its influence over ASEAN. India's fast economic recovery, increasing military strength and relatively favorable international image could also strengthen the voices among Indians that support a tough line against China, and make it difficult for the Indian government to maintain sound Sino-Indian relations. Though India is likely to develop its relations with Japan, Vietnam and other countries in the next decade, its ties with the US will still be the top priority for India. So China has to pay special attention to India's diplomacy in 2011.
Fourth, the maneuverable space between China and the US is narrowing, and strategic frictions are becoming unavoidable. The US' claim that it is navigating the South China Sea, strengthening security cooperation with Vietnam and building a trilateral alliance with the ROK and Japan over the Korean Peninsula issue in its national interests shows Washington's strategic anxiety over Beijing is increasing. The US will never allow China to challenge its leadership, and will try to "contain" China's rise.
In other words, the US will interfere in the regional order and use China's frictions and disputes to its advantage. Hence, China has to deal with the US with maturity and utter calm.
Fifth, while formulating its strategy with neighboring countries, China should use the exchanges between its frontier provinces and neighboring countries to set up an institution to deal with the transborder security situation. And China's domestic departments, local authorities and central government should expedite coordination to help speed up this process.
As China grows in strength its actions and words could evoke unwarranted response from its neighbors. It is important that China understands its neighbors' mindset and increases its coordination and cooperation with them. It should be confident but moderate, proactive but guarded in its actions and words.
The authors are research scholars with the Institute of the Asia-Pacific Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and members of the team that drafted the report "2010: Regional Security Change and China's Strategic Response". This is an excerpt from the report made by the institute
Differences exist but peace reigns
The overall international situation in 2010 has been complicated. But the main trend is clear: the global balance of power is undergoing profound changes.
G20 has become a platform where emerging economies can have dialogue with the developed world on a relatively equal basis. The reform of the international financial system has seen the voting power of developing countries in the World Bank inch closer to 50 percent, and given BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) a 14.18 percent share of the International Monetary Fund's quota - which is important because major decisions in the monetary body require an 85 percent super majority.
In terms of economic recovery, emerging economies have maintained a strong growth momentum, while developed countries are struggling with the global financial crisis, and though the United States is still the only world superpower, its influence is waning. It seems that the world is evolving just as some politicians and scholars once said: The East is growing and the West is declining.
Faced with the reality of the "changing times" after entering the White House in January last year, US President Barack Obama vowed to renew the US' global leadership through "new diplomacy". The Obama administration now says it is committed to a "multi-partner world" rather than "world multipolarization".
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has time and again elaborated Obama's "new diplomacy", calling for the establishment of a "multi-partner world". She has said: "We will lead by inducing greater cooperation among a greater number of actors and reducing competition, tilting the balance away from a multi-polar world and toward a multi-partner world."
But in essence there has been no change in US strategy, except for the change in terms. Clinton has been trying to disguise Washington's strategy, which remains the same - to sustain and strengthen the US' "leadership" and maintain "today's world" so that it can continue playing a leading role.
Since the end of the Cold War, especially during the past decade, Asia (except for the Middle East) has enjoyed a relatively peaceful and stable environment compared with some other region, and maintained record economic growth. Asian countries not only weathered the 1997 financial storm and emerged stronger, but they have also overcome the global financial crisis, under which the West is still reeling.
Economic developments in Asia have been promising. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has become an important platform for mutually beneficial cooperation and common development in the region. This year saw the launch of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area. Other cooperative mechanisms, such as the ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and the Republic of Korea), have been established, and the gains of China's fast growth are spilling over to wider areas.
However, problems do exist in Asia, especially the ones left over by history and created by differences in culture and national interests. But China has been patiently and peacefully coordinating with other countries to solve some latent problems that could evolve into "confrontations" in the region. China's aim is to solve them through mutual understanding and mutually beneficial cooperation. And though the "US factor" has played a negative role, it has not been able to reverse the general trend of peace, development and cooperation in the region.
Washington, no doubt, needs to seek new partners. Beijing, too, attaches great importance to its ties with Washington. But if the US wants its new partners to behave like subordinates, it can safely count China out. Another disturbing factor is that Obama's "new diplomacy" seems to be aimed at "containing" China's rise.
By using the disputes between China and some Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea and the China-Japan dispute over the Diaoyu Islands, and by playing up the "threat of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea", the US has strengthened its military presence in Asia significantly. Also, the US has deferred the transfer of wartime operational command to the Republic of Korea by three years and seven months, and ensured that groups in Japan that dared to challenge it backed off.
But the US should realize that times have changed. The situation in Asia today and the relationship between China and other Asian countries cannot be compared with those in the past. Vested interests' attempt to "encircle" China to "contain" its rise does not conform to the trend of the changing times. Although countries neighboring China need the cooperation and support of the US, and to some extent even want it to "help maintain the balance of power", none of them would like to side with Washington against Beijing.
We cannot assume that the relationships between China and its neighbors are deteriorating, because that is not the truth. If we tend to just follow the Western media and sensationalize the frictions between China and its neighbors, we will fall in the trap laid by some Western powers to create divisions between China and other Asian countries.
However, we should realize that the Sino-US relation is still most important. If China and the US get along well, China and other Asian countries will also get along relatively smoothly.
We need a stable Sino-US relationship to avoid putting other Asian countries in a dilemma of strategic choices. A stable and healthy bilateral relationship is crucial for China and the US both.
Given its increasing influence on the world stage, China can make a difference in international relations. Indeed, it has been trying to make that difference by acting prudently and without causing any harm to other countries.
And it is important that China exercises restraint against outside provocations and avoids being complacent because of some lavish praise.
The author is executive director of the Strategy Research Center of China International Studies Research Fund.