China and the US need to talk.

Tensions will rise in Asia until China and the U.S. talk

The Japan Times ‎

Jul 7, 2014 

by Yoon Young-Kwan  

A vast revolution in military affairs is taking place across East Asia.

The latest signs are

  • Chinese President Xi Jinping’s purge of Gen Xu Caihou on charges of corruption, and
  • Japan’s “reinterpretation” of Article 9 of its constitution to permit the country to provide military aid to its allies. (Article 9 of the Constitution says the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”)

military-west-pacificDespite the rising regional tensions that inspired these moves, China’s relations with its neighbours and the United States are not fated to lead to direct confrontation. But the relentless march of new initiatives to meet the perceived “China threat” will require the region’s political leaders, including the Chinese, to address their disputes in new and more creative ways if that outcome is to be avoided.

In general, there are three ways to foster international peace: Deepening economic interdependence, promoting democracy, and building international institutions. Unfortunately, because East Asia’s political leaders have failed to pursue the latter objective, they now find themselves

playing dangerous balance-of-power games reminiscent of  Europe a century ago.

Deepening economic interdependence in the wake of Asia’s 1997 financial crisis has not generated political momentum for peace and cooperation. The region’s business leaders have been unable to prevent deteriorating foreign relations from harming their interests. By contrast, military lobbying now deeply influences foreign and defence policies — witness

  • China’s double-digit increase in defence spending and
  • rising US arms sales in the region. What explains this failure?…  

Until recently, the US seemed to have assumed that China’s engagement with Western democracies would bolster peaceful ties. But,

  • since the 2008 financial crisis, China’s confidence in its authoritarian development model has grown stronger. Its leaders now increasingly appear to believe that
  • a new “Beijing Consensus” of mercantilism and state intervention has
  • replaced the old “Washington consensus” of free trade and deregulation.
  • China’s ideological incompatibility with the US thus is

making the shift in their relative power difficult to achieve peacefully.

In the late 19th century, a rising US was able to cooperate with a declining Britain, owing to their shared culture and values. China’s leaders, however, tend to suspect that the

US is deliberately trying to undermine their country’s political stability by

questioning its record on human rights and political freedoms.

Meanwhile, Mr. Xi’s domestic policies seem to be taking the country ever further from Western norms. It is this ideological divide that is undermining the development in East Asia of institutions that establish principles, rules, and decision-making procedures for the region.

While much of the West is bound together by institutions such as the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe and Nato, East Asia’s main body, the Asean Regional Forum, is too weak to play an analogous role, leaving the region beset with unregulated rivalries. So far, US and East Asian leaders have done little beyond offering rhetorical support for the creation of

  • multilateral security institutions. With the exception of the almost defunct six-party talks aimed at eliminating the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, Asia’s powers refuse to be constrained by international rules or norms. Instead,
  • East Asia’s leaders resort to realpolitik.

Unfortunately, unlike Europe’s 19th-century political masterminds who crafted durable international alliances, Asia lacks leaders willing and able to look beyond their narrow national interests.

For example, China’s leaders seem to believe that the

2008 economic crisis and
the high costs of two foreign wars have left the
US in no position to exercise international leadership.

Testing US power in this way could prove to be a dangerous miscalculation. Its interests in East Asia date back to the late 19th century. Just as Britain refused to concede naval supremacy to Germany a century ago, the US will not easily accept any Chinese challenge to its strategic position in the western Pacific, especially given that so many East Asian states are pleading for US protection.

China and the US need to talk.


Despite their economic interdependence and some 90 inter-governmental channels for bilateral dialogue,

  • the two superpowers are caught in a perilous tug-of-war over interests in the East and South China Seas and the western Pacific.

Sino-Japanese relations are particularly fraught, with

  • two decades of economic stagnation in Japan and
  • rapid growth in China fuelling nationalist overreaction on both sides. Having become accustomed to
  • outsourcing its security to the US, and despite having the
  • world’s third-largest economy, Japan neglected to develop its own constructive diplomatic vision. It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s constitutional reinterpretation, cloaked in the language of regional cooperation, advances such a new vision.

It does not help that the US wants Japan to shoulder more of the burden of maintaining Asia’s security, a position that may make sense strategically and financially, but that betrays a lack of understanding of the political context. The United States seems to underestimate regional concerns over

Japan’s potential remilitarisation.

By providing Japan with a diplomatic carte blanche, the US may find itself hostage to Japanese interests, with the result that Japan becomes part of Asia’s security problem, not part of its solution. Asia-Pacific leaders must shake off their complacency. Serious efforts and far-reaching compromises are needed to begin

the process of building institutions for regional security cooperation.

Otherwise, the much-heralded “Asian century”, far from bringing economic prosperity and peace, will be an age of suspicion and peril. 


Yoon Young-kwan, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Republic of Korea, is Professor of International Relations at Seoul National University.

© 2014 Project Syndicate


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