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Northeast Asia Peace Initiative

X. Jiang: Chinese Perspectives on the Changed Political and Security Situation in Northeast Asia

The changed political and security situation since 9/11

The primary characteristic of the changed Asia-Pacific situation is a strengthened U.S. political and security influence in Northeast Asia. The following are indications: (1) by launching an anti-terrorism war, the U.S. not only revitalized its bilateral military relations with allies in the Asia-Pacific region but also enhanced its political influence in Southeast Asia as well. The military dependence of Southeast Asian nations on the U.S. has deepened to varying extents; (2) since 9/11, summits about Asia-Pacific multilateral economic forums such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) have discussed anti-terrorism; (3) by enhancing Sino-U.S. economic interdependence and strengthening the U.S.-Japan military alliance, the Bush administration has improved the U.S. bargaining position in the U.S., Japan, China triangular relationship.

The Japan-led Asia-Pacific economic growth model, the so-called “wild-goose model,” is tending to disintegrate. But in the meantime, Japan has not only successfully made a transition from being a mainly economic power to being a political power but also become an increasingly active player in Asia-Pacific security affairs. In this regard, Japan has met little resistance from Asia–Pacific countries.  

China’s role in promoting stability and prosperity in the region is ascending, and the so-called “China threat” perception is decreasing as more Asia-Pacific countries consider China's rapid economic growth to be an opportunity rather than a threat.

The role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in forging multilateral security mechanisms has somewhat weakened, and destabilizing factors have increased within ASEAN countries.

The overall political and security situation in the Asia-Pacific region is improving. ASEAN has taken the lead in establishing a free-trade area. The formulation of a free-trade area between China and ASEAN has been moving ahead smoothly. There has been progress in the financial and monetary cooperation of Asia-Pacific countries in recent years. Bilateral relationships between major Asia-Pacific powers seem to have improved; in particular, Sino-U.S. relations have shifted back to a comparatively stable track. In the meantime, Japan’s manufacturing sector has initiated a third investment wave in China, which will be conducive to improving Sino-Japan political relations in the long run.

A number of breakthroughs have been made in forging new multilateral security frameworks: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has developed smoothly both in enhancing economic growth among member states and in coordinating border security and anti-terrorism operations. Various second-track multilateral security talks have played an increasingly important role in promoting mutual understanding and reducing mutual distrust. China’s policy towards multilateral security dialogue and cooperation has become more and more positive, and that will have a positive impact on forging new security mechanisms in the region.

There are also negative developments in the security situation in the region. The intensification of U.S. unipolar approaches and its apparently lowered threshold for using force to pursue diplomatic objectives will exacerbate hot spots in the region. For instance, the prospects for détente on the Korean Peninsula have become more uncertain.

Japan's national strategy has become more and more focused on becoming a military power. Such a posture has caused anxiety and unease among Asia-Pacific countries.

The intensification of U.S. anti-terrorism wars complicates U.S. relations with the Islamic countries in the region, increasing anti-U.S. nationalism in Southeast Asian countries. This would have a destructive influence on the development of U.S. bilateral political and security relations with some ASEAN countries.

India is making every endeavor to build up a naval fleet and expand its influence towards Southeast Asia. It is also trying to expand its strategic presence into the Asia-Pacific basin and Central Asia. Furthermore, India is devoting efforts to strengthen strategic relations with Japan, Vietnam and other ASEAN countries. Since both India and Japan have territorial disputes with China, the strengthening of strategic cooperation between them would complicate Sino-Indian and Sino-Japanese relations.

An opportunity to formulate a new security framework

The U.S. has gained considerable advantages from existing bilateral and multilateral cooperative security frameworks in Northeast Asia, and its foreign policy initiatives are ascending. The Bush administration has determined to redraft the geopolitical landscape of Northeast Asia by exploiting the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) nuclear arms programs. In fact, the ever-deepening economic interdependence and deep-rooted national contradictions of the countries in the region, together with the security policies of the major powers, have made it difficult for the U.S. to find a viable way to unilaterally dominate regional security. Therefore, China should pursue a policy that strives to fully exploit existing security frameworks and take advantage of them to promote its national interests. On the other hand, China should strive to play a more leading role in formulating a new cooperative multilateral security framework in Northeast Asia.

For that purpose, China should first take the initiative to develop new close strategic relationships with the U.S. and de facto coalitions in Northeast Asia. The tough reality is that the U.S. has maintained close economic, political and security relationships with countries in Northeast Asia. This simple fact implies an important precondition for any kind of cooperative security framework in Northeast Asia to work successfully: it must not aim at undermining the widespread U.S. economic, political and security interests in the region. Therefore, all countries in Northeast Asia, including China, have to develop and strengthen bilateral relations with the U.S. In the meantime, they should each devote themselves to removing all doubts that the U.S. has about forging a new multipolar security framework in Northeast Asia. Since the overall economic stability and development in Northeast Asia is conducive to economic recovery and growth, therefore, China should emphasize to the U.S. that any unilateral action it takes with its allies will seriously damage Sino-U.S. strategic relations and overall stability and development in Northeast Asia. China should more energetically demand that the U.S. give written or oral security assurances to the DPRK in negotiating about its nuclear arms programs.

Second, both publicly and privately, China has to keep stressing that in order to resolve DPRK nuclear arms programs, both the principal and secondary aspects of the problem must be taken into account. On the one hand, China should urge the U.S. to abandon its hostile policy towards DPRK. On the other hand, China should urge the DPRK to choose to give up its nuclear arms programs rather than face disastrous consequences for possessing them. Meanwhile, to secure an invincible position in developments on the Korean Peninsula, China has to augment its strategic investment by providing economic, political and military aid to the DPRK. To maintain and strengthen its traditional friendly relationship with the DPRK is China's most important basis for  playing a bigger role in forging a new security framework.

Third, China needs to take more practical and effective measures to develop its strategic partnership with the Republic of Korea (ROK). To strengthen the ROK bargaining chip in negotiations with the U.S. and the DPRK, China could consider providing a security guarantee and give more explicit diplomatic support to the ROK as it strives to play a decisive role in resolving the DPRK nuclear arms programs. Meanwhile, the DPRK needs to take into account U.S. preparations for a military attack. This possibility exists for a worst-case scenario for the DPRK problem, and China has to prepare in all respects to face the possible breakout of unexpected events in the Korean Peninsula. Thus, the related departments of China's government must take the initiative to consult with neighboring countries and establish all forms of cooperative preventive measures.

Fourth, it is important for China to make appropriate policy modifications to the existing bilateral military alliances and multilateral military cooperative frameworks dominated by the U.S. Taking the DPRK nuclear arms programs into consideration, it is high time for China to announce that the U.S.-Japan military alliance is a historical fait accompli and that it has played a positive role in maintaining peace and stability in the region, preventing Japan from becoming a nuclear power and dealing with the rising threat of non-traditional security problems in the region. China could learn from the experiences of Russia in dealing with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and make every endeavor to be an observer of the U.S.-Japan military alliance in order remove the biggest political obstacle to deepening Sino-Japanese relations. China should keep insisting that the Japanese government make a political decision about acknowledging Japanese history. Meanwhile, the Chinese government should take a positive attitude toward the security role that Japan plays in keeping peace and stability in the region. It seems certain that making an appropriate evaluation of Japan's security and promoting Sino-Japan bilateral military dialogue (both enhancing the administrative levels and expanding the scope of the dialogue) are conducive to stability and security in the region.

Ways to promote China's strategic dominance

In order to maintain and strengthen China's strategic position in Northeast Asia, the Chinese government should first take a positive attitude toward all forms of multilateral frameworks aimed at resolving the DPRK nuclear arms program. China should also fully exploit any kind of military, economic and political deal that will accomplish credible monitoring of DPRK nuclear facilities. The close cooperation of China, the U.S., Japan, Russia, ROK and DPRK are needed to restrain U.S. ambitions to create a unipolar world.

Second, China should employ all administrative types of multilateral cooperation emerging in the process of resolving the DPRK nuclear problem as a lubricant to alleviate the security anxieties of Japan and the DPRK and forge a stable framework based on the close cooperation of the U.S., China and Russia to provide strategic security to countries in the region.

Third, it is of great significance for China to strengthen its strategic dialogue with the European Union in the process of resolving the DPRK problem. Although the European Union is not in Northeast Asia, it has an interest in DPRK affairs. As a matter of fact, strengthening its cooperative security with Asia has become a main aspect of the European Union's foreign strategy for the new century. The European Union has always supported the development of inter-Korean dialogue and provided humanitarian aid to the DPRK. Many European Union countries have established formal diplomatic relations with the DPRK, and these countries support the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, it is in China's national interests to exploit the strategic differences between the U.S. and the European Union extending from the war in Iraq to develop a strategic dialogue with the European Union about reducing the foreign threat felt by the DPRK and expanding economic and humanitarian aid to DPRK.

Fourth, to strengthen strategic consultations with Russia about solving the DPRK nuclear arms programs and formulating a new security order in Northeast Asia is conducive to enhancing China's prestige in the region. The interaction of China and Russia in respect to security in Northeast Asia is increasing, stabilizing the situation in the Korean Peninsula, which is conducive to the national interests of both China and Russia. Therefore, with the increasing diplomatic and military pressure on the DPRK, it is difficult to make a breakthrough in inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation because of the restraints imposed by the U.S. and Japan. Since the DPRK wants Russia to play a more active role in developing multilateral talks about its nuclear arms programs, China could take the initiative to promote security consultations with Russia.

The following factors could also be exploited by China to strengthen its strategic dominance in Northeast Asia. First, the European Union, most of the developing countries, and most of the countries within the region want a multipolar cooperative security framework formulated through political consultations instead of one super powerful country dominating regional security. From the perspectives of the correlation of forces in Northeast Asia, China's comprehensive national strength is on the rise; thus, so long as China insists on formulating a cooperative security framework based on multipolar consultations, it will enlist more and more support.

Second, a multipolar security framework actually benefits all of the major powers in Northeast Asia, and it would more easily be accepted by small and mid-sized countries in the region. China has special influence since it is the biggest trading partner of the ROK and largest provider of food and energy assistance to the DPRK.

As its internal and external situation continues to deteriorate and the threats from the U.S. become more serious, the DPRK finds it more difficult to reduce its strategic dependence on China by improving relations with the ROK, strengthening relations with Russia, and exploiting relations with Japan. The fact that President Roh Moo-hyun linked the development of North-South relations to resolving the DPRK nuclear arms program has further narrowed the  maneuvering space for the DPRK.

Third, in the Bush administration, the neoconservative members' influence on U.S. foreign policy and security agenda has been strengthened since the U.S. launched its war against Afghanistan and Iraq. However, they are still far from fully controlling the American foreign policy and security agenda. The so-called moderates in the Bush administration still have enough power to restrain the hawks within the administration. Most mainstream conservatives in both the Republican and Democratic parties believe that it is in their country's vital interest to pursue a policy of traditional balance of power in East Asia. From the U.S. perspective, the DPRK nuclear arms program is just one chess piece on the big chessboard of its grand security strategy for Northeast Asia. Thus, the U.S. will make decisions about the DPRK based on whether they help strengthen its strategic restraint on China and, to a lesser extent, Japan. Eventually, they will depend on whether it is conducive to the achievement of political reunification of the Korean Peninsula without damaging widespread interests in Northeast Asia. For that purpose, the U.S. should strive to stabilize rather than destabilize the situation in the Korean Peninsula and prevent an outbreak of a situation that the U.S. cannot control. As the 2008 U.S. presidential elections approach, the arguments of moderate conservatives will appear more attractive to President Bush and have greater impact on U.S. security policy towards East Asia.

Fourth, the ever-deepening economic interdependence between China and the ROK is a foundation for strengthening Sino-ROK strategic cooperation in forging a new multipolar cooperative security framework in the region. With the U.S. increasing its unipolar tendency and the political will to use force in foreign affairs and security policies, along with the quickening of Japanese remilitarization, the ROK strives to balance the correlation of forces in Northeast Asia and exert more influence on U.S. security policy towards East Asia. Along with deepening North-South economic cooperation, the economic power and strategic security position of the ROK will rise, and in the mid- to long-term it will play a more important role in maintaining peace and stability in Northeast Asia. Meanwhile, a growing number of Japanese enterprises have established manufacturing bases in China. The changing form and geography of Japanese investments in China and its ever-deepening economic dependence on China demonstrate that Japan's national goal for revitalizing its economy and modifying its economic structure, in fact, needs the close cooperation of China.  

Fifth, there exist close historic and cultural links among major countries in Northeast Asia. Lots of cultural features in the ROK, Japan and ASEAN countries developed from traditional Chinese Confucianism. Although the influence of the so-called Asian model is not as big as before the Asian financial crisis, the fact that many commonalities exist in the cultural and moral systems of East Asian countries is beyond question. These common values include many religious and cultural structures, such as that spirit is superior to matter, community higher than the individual, the veneration of harmony, belittling material gains, etc. These East Asian cultural characteristics are different from Western Judeo-Christian culture. The East Asian strategic culture has also been characterized as follows: tendency to look at issues from the long run, veneration of fairness and consensus, pursuit of comprehensive and cooperative security, and advocacy of peaceful solutions to regional and international conflicts.

Challenges in formulating a multipolar cooperative security framework

In formulating a multipolar cooperative security framework, East Asian nations still face challenges, mainly the following. First, since the 1990s the U.S. and most of the ASEAN countries have gradually begun engaging in multilateral joint war exercises. The percentage of non-traditional security factors has progressively increased in the war games, and they are not aimed at an imaginary enemy but at a specific regional hot spot. With the rise of peacekeeping, attacks on pirates and humanitarian aid operations, almost all the countries of Northeast Asia except China have taken part in this kind of military exercise. China also faces the challenges of an ever-escalating non-traditional threat to its national security. In regard to this situation, China has been caught in the dilemma of whether to join these war games. If China decides to join, it will increase the risks of being brought into the orbit of U.S. security strategy towards the region. On the other hand, if China chooses to stay away from these war games, China will not only be at a disadvantage in the contest to forge a new security order in the region; the U.S. will have more opportunities to promote its strategic objectives in the region. [Editor’s Note: China and Russia held joint war games in August 2005]

Second, Japan has fallen into a passive position ever since the beginning of the new century in respect to its relationship with the U.S. The U.S. position in the major triangular strategic relationships in the region (such as U.S., China and Japan; U.S., China and Russia; U.S., China and India) has been strengthened to various extents. Meanwhile, the Sino-U.S. economic interdependence is deepening. All this is conducive to U.S. efforts to establish a unipolar security community in Northeast Asia by promoting a network of bilateral military alliances.

Possible scenarios in the DPRK nuclear issue:

  1. The DPRK continues its effort to develop nuclear capabilities and move towards testing nuclear bombs.
  2. Bilateral talks between the U.S. and the DPRK result in a deal.
  3. The DPRK regime changes, and the problem disappears.
  4. With the intensification of confrontation between the U.S. and the DPRK, the U.S. will forge an international coalition to impose sanctions on the DPRK.
  5. Substantial progress will be made through the Six-Party Talks in Beijing.
  6. The U.S. will choose to make a targeted preemptive strike on DPRK military facilities after a continued improvement in the political and security situation in Iraq.

Regardless of whether these possibilities turn out to be true, one thing is certain: as long as the U.S. insists on its tough policy towards the DPRK and Kim Jong-il maintains his grip on the DPRK, the nuclear issue will not be solved.

Source: From a paper presented at a conference on "Innovative Approaches to Peace and Stability in Northeast Asia: Focus on the Korean Peninsula," May 26-28, 2005, Moscow, Russia, co-organized by the IIFWP and the Russian Political Science Association. Dr. Xiyuan Jiang received his Ph.D. in the history of Sino-U.S relations from Zhongshan University.  Previously, he received his M.A. in the history of international relations from the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing. Dr. Jiang was Deputy Director of the Asian-Pacific Studies Department at SIIS. His major academic publications include: The Taiwan Issue in the World Configuration: Changes and Challenges (co-author), and International Terrorism and Contemporary International Relations (co-author). He is the author of Grand Strategies of the Major Powers and China’s Future (2003), and The Peaceful Rise of China (2004, co-authored with Xia Liping).

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