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Forging a common regional approach to China

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In Brief

Despite China's rapid and unprecedented economic growth, the world has yet to come to grips with the challenges and opportunities that the country presents. The story of China's rise is as much about how the rest of the world responds to China as it is about the nation that China is growing to become.


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China is going to be an increasingly influential player in the region. But concerns abound about what sort of power China aspires to be. Will it utilise its increasing power to promote shared stability and prosperity or to unilaterally alter the regional status quo?

From Japan’s perspective, Chinese activities over the Senkaku Islands seem geared toward competing for effective control, in contrast to the status quo, under which Japan maintains effective control. This can be construed as a tactic to test the resolve of the US-Japan alliance. China’s domestic governance challenges —income inequality, corruption, environmental degradation, and the pressure to achieve the target of doubling 2010 GDP and per capita income by 2020 — could exacerbate the risk that China will utilise a tough foreign policy posture as a diversionary tactic.

A number of obstacles need to be considered to lay the groundwork for a common regional approach on cooperation with China.

The United States has long pursued a hedging policy toward China, but the efficacy of its policy is undermined by domestic political divisions. Some political leaders tend to emphasise an alliance-first approach and the need to hedge against unpredictable behaviour while others emphasise the need to forge constructive relations. But the issue of how to deal with China has too often been used by one side as a bludgeon against the other. A continuation of partisan politics will only exacerbate the difficulties that the US faces in formulating its China policy, and there is an urgent need to consolidate this policy before presidential election posturing kicks into high gear and Obama enters a lame duck period.

Any hedging strategy by definition includes both deterrence and engagement. The current hedging strategy mistakes engagement for weakness, but engagement should be bolstered through concrete measures, including strengthening confidence-building processes. Deterrence measures must balance the reality that US resources are limited. The US should, therefore, be careful about drawing any red lines, which may present China with a convenient opportunity to expand its influence right up to the line without actually crossing it.

Japan’s current approach to China under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is to talk tough. To fend off critics, Abe insists that the door for dialogue with China is always open. But what is sorely needed is a comprehensive China strategy that is both firm on security and bold on engagement.

Moves to reinforce Japan’s security should be welcomed. With the shifting balance of power, it is necessary for the Japanese public to deeply consider issues such as collective self-defence, the role that the SDF should be performing, and how Japan can contribute to the maintenance of peace. Japan may in the future need to play greater roles than rear-area support to the US. And security cooperation with countries such as Australia, India, and ASEAN member states, the US, and South Korea, should be promoted in order to hedge against future unpredictability.

The reinterpretation of Article 9, adopted by the Abe government through a cabinet decision on 1 July, will remove some of the existing restraints on SDF troops’ use of weapons during UN-led peacekeeping missions and allow the SDF to contribute more actively in responding to contingency scenarios that directly threaten Japan’s national security. But it is crucial that in-depth explanations are given as to why changes have to be made now, and a robust mechanism should be established to ensure that the scope of changes stays within the intended purview and genuinely retains the spirit of Article 9.

At the same time, Japan must boldly build constructive relations with China in order to promote regional stability. Two main issues stand out as obstacles to rebuilding meaningful and cooperative government-to-government relations: tensions surrounding the Senkaku Islands and history issues. The Senkaku issue does not lend itself to a short-term resolution. Before a long-term solution can be achieved, it is critical that the two countries de-escalate tensions and strengthen crisis management systems. On the question of Japan’s past, it is vital that the Japanese government does not undermine established official statements, such as the Murayama and Kono statements.

On ASEAN there is a critical need to demonstrate a unified front and continue to move steadily toward the implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in order to cooperate confidently with China.

Given China’s increasingly assertive posture and the unpredictability of its future role, many nations around the region feel a strong motivation to align themselves with the US. At the same time, it must be made clear that hedging is not containment and includes a strong component of engagement toward China.

A robust regional confidence-building mechanism, perhaps through the East Asia Summit, is sorely needed. Talk of responsible regional stakeholding may be perceived in China as an attempt to constrain its behaviour. However, engagement with China can help to bring about the realisation that unilateral changes to the status quo will undermine its regional relations and economic growth founded in international cooperation is the best path forward both for China and shared regional stability and prosperity.

The makeup of the East Asia Summit (EAS) means that it is the best venue for working toward a shared prosperous future in East Asia.

Hitoshi Tanaka is a senior fellow at the Japan Center for International Exchange and chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, Ltd. He previously served as Japan’s deputy minister for foreign affairs.

This article is an extract from East Asia Insights Vol. 9 No. 3 July 2014, which is available in full here, and is reprinted with the kind permission of JCIE.

One response to “Forging a common regional approach to China”

  1. Mr Tanaka and Professor Amy King, whose related commentaries on the theme of Sino-Japanese mutual strategic insecurity, published simultaneously, illuminate the complexities coursing through the discourse. China’s economic, commercial, financial, scientific-technical, military and diplomatic profile – reflecting its ‘comprehensive national power’, has grown dramatically over the past three decades, shattering the comfortable complacency of status quo-oriented actors. Japan, its strategic patron, and its regional partners fall into this category. China’s rise and conduct are thought to threaten what these states and societies had come to believe to be the ideal world which emerged following the Soviet collapse in 1991, and which, according their aspirations, ought to self-perpetuate indefinitely. As long as the non-US actors such as Japan and Germany, once-defeated adversaries-turned-allies, occupied the upper reaches of the global power hierarchy, there was no need to worry. China, only partly defeated by Western and Japanese power, and pursuing its own non-liberal-democratic path to its collective future, was different.

    In the 1970s and 1980s, when President Nixon saw Chinese support crucial to maintaining a global strategic balance vis-a-vis expansive Soviet influence, America and its allies aided China’s Dengist nation-building project by transferring technology and skills. What Washington could not ship owing to its legal constraints, it urged NATO allies and Israel to sell to China, and they did. In fact, Israel only stopped selling some items in July 2000 when President Clinton persuaded Ehud Barak to renege on an AWACS contract. During those two decades of tacit Sino-US alliance, the two partners closely, and covertly, collaborated in South Asia, Central America, southern Africa, the Horn of Africa, Indochina and, most prominently, in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. CIA archives, if left unredacted, would reveal the degree of intimacy with which the higher echelons of the Washington Beltway and Zhongnanhai colluded in reshaping the core of the international security system.

    And yet, very little Western (or, for that matter, Chinese) literature alludes to Beijing’s contribution to America’s Cold War victory over the USSR. Ignoring, avoiding, neglecting or even denying such a key aspect of the final two decades of the Cold War may reflect the multiplicity of standards colouring perceptions and perspectives.

    For one thing, at myriad scholarly gathering organised or sponsored by Western institutions, it is difficult to avoid the impression that irrespective of what its neighbours and fellow-claimants/disputatnts do, China can do nothing right. Beijing has, to be sure, over the past four years, acted forcefully to defend what it claims are its rights. However, much of its vigour has been directed at responding to actions initiated by others. That fact has often been ignored by Western academics, and officials. The discourse is thus less detached and more subjective than any rigorous intellectual enterprise demands and deserves.

    The rapidly burgeoning literature suggests that in the absence of a ‘Cold War-style’ adversary, NATO-members, or at least some of their officials, academic observers and think-tank commentators, have decided to designate China as the prime adversary for the US-led post-Soviet order. This is partly ironic, given that Soviet-collapse was strongly assisted and hastened by Sino-US covert collaboration.

    These semi- and unofficial spokespersons for Western strategic establishments should not, however, be accused of painting China in hostile colours by themselves. Since 1996, and especially since the beginning of 2001, some members of the US national security establishment, formally identified a resurgent China as a ‘near-peer rival,’ urging whole-of-government efforts to prepare America to counter that putative challenge to its new-fangled systemic primacy. That effort has now become policy.

    It is in this context that Japan finds itself overshadowed by its neighbour, and rejects its downgrading as the Asian topdog as unacceptable. At least since 1960, after the US-Japanese alliance was revised and boosted, Tokyo has played a modest and largely economic, role in aiding US military dominance in the Western Pacific. Apart from Nixon’s ‘China shock,’ to which Japan adapted with remarkable alacrity, speeding grants, investment and technology-transfers, Tokyo remained convinced that China posed no threats. Beijing’s status as a junior partner to Washington in global affairs further eased Japanese concerns. The weakening of US and Western economic dominance in recent years, especially since 2008, and China’s sudden emergence as the world’s second largest economy, stoked latent anxieties in Japan. Even the globalist Democratic Party of Japan gradually turned nationalistic while in office. Shinzo Abe’s return to power merely reflected a reinforcing trend. The fact that Japan can only be a dominant Asian power with US support must gall Japanese nationalists who have now ‘reinterpreted’ their US-imposed constitution, an act that has ironically been praised and welcomed by the successors of the drafters of that constitution.

    China and Japan share historical animosities and not all of these relate to rational interpretations of conflicting state interests. Subjectivity and subliminal tensions may, in fact, be more substantive factors in shaping adversarial dynamics than fact-based challenges. But that would merit another commentary.

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