Asia’s New Strategic Landscape

Asia’s New Strategic Landscape
Introductory Remarks to the Seminar on U.S., Chinese, and Russian Relations

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr.  (USFS, Ret.)
23 April 2013, Jiaotong University, Shanghai, China

The Asia-Pacific region is now more troubled by multiple crises and confrontations than it has been in twenty years.  The crises and confrontations include:

  • threats of nuclear war in Korea,
  • maneuvering by China and Japan over conflicting claims to the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands,
  • intermittent incidents between China and some Southeast Asian nations over claims to islands, shoals, reefs, and seabed resources in the South China Sea, and
  • escalated tensions between Japan and south Korea as well as Russia over emotionally-charged maritime boundary disputes.

These tensions reflect unexpiated historical traumas, states of war that have yet to be succeeded by formal peace agreements, and the legacy of past imperial spheres of influence, colonial conquests, and Cold War confrontations.  The flare-up of these disputes after decades of dormancy is the result of shifting balances of capabilities among the region’s powers that have yet to be reflected in readjusted relationships, new equilibriums, and patterns of mutual restraint.  The difficulty all concerned are having in handling their conflicting interests underscores the need to reach closure on historical issues, formally end bygone wars, and settle territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific region rather than allowing them to fester and stimulate nationalist frictions.

The global stake in this region’s stability is great and growing.  East and South Asia have resumed their historic role as the global center of economic gravity and the Pacific basin has eclipsed the Atlantic as the home of the world’s most dynamic societies.  In economic terms, Asia is now Sino-centric.  China is where the region’s and the world’s supply chains converge.  It has recently joined the United States and Japan as a world economic power, meaning a country whose interests and activities must be taken into account everywhere on our planet.

With Russia, China is also increasingly active in defending the rules of international behavior enshrined in the United Nations Charter through its status as a permanent member of the Security Council.  This places China ,with a few other countries, at the managerial apex of the evolving world political order.  And, for the first time since the eighteenth century, China has a credible ability to defend the approaches to its borders as well as its territorial integrity.  It has reemerged as Asia’s greatest military power.

This is the economic, political, and military context in which the United States has announced a “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region.  The logic of a shift in American strategic attention to Asia is irrefutable.  Characteristically, having received a directive to emphasize Asia, the U.S. military responded with disciplined speed.  The civilian elements of our government are taking their time to mobilize themselves.  This has left the impression that the “pivot” is all about military deployments.  It has also left the precise import of the “pivot” to be clarified by the passage of time and the direction of events.

In essence, however, the “pivot” or “rebalancing” is simply recognition of the heightened importance of Asia.  This acknowledgment of evolving Asian realities will find ongoing expression in American economic, political, and military strategy and activities.  America’s Asian allies, partners, and friends seek U.S. support for the process of peaceful accommodation of Asia’s new realities. They do not want to divide their region into competing spheres of influence dominated by great powers.  American facilitation of the peaceful adjustment of balances between Asian nations can and should be a constructive part of the “new pattern of great power relations” that Chinese State President Xi Jinping proposes.

The United States has been an essential element of the Asia-Pacific balance of power since the 1850s.  In 1945, America occupied and attempted to reform Japan.  Since then, the United States has filled the vacuum the overthrow of Japanese militarism and Japan’s earlier annihilation of European colonialism in Asia created.  Asian-Pacific states have come to rely on a robust American presence to stabilize their region.

The United States has acted consistently to oppose violent alteration of the status quo in Asia.  For a quarter century, this pitted America against China.  Our two countries fought directly to a standstill in Korea from 1950 to 1953 and indirectly to a U.S. defeat in Indochina, which fell to Hanoi in 1975.  Russia, in the person of the Soviet Union, was indirectly but substantially involved in both conflicts.

The United States stood aside as China used force to convince Hanoi to stand down from empire-building in Southeast Asia.  U.S. policy created a context in which China can and has promoted peaceful change through dialogue across the Taiwan Strait.  At the cost of awkwardness and occasional tension in its relations with China, the United States has opposed coercive measures against Taiwan.  But it has welcomed and supported every advance in the ongoing process of cross-Strait rapprochement and integration.  It has objected to none.  The results speak for themselves.  As a very great Chinese statesman once put it: “practice is the sole criterion of truth.”

Far from seeking to “contain” China, as some in China allege, American policy over the decades since normalization in 1979 has sought to encourage China to come out of its shell and join the councils of global governance.  China’s membership in the World Trade Organization and in the G-20, as well as the unprecedentedly elaborate consultative processes of the U.S.-China strategic and economic dialogue all attest to this.  Much of contemporary China’s success as a modernizing society reflects the welcome America extended to Beijing’s new policies of reform and openness.  The United States has welcomed Chinese students, Chinese products, and Chinese services as well as access to China’s growing market for its own goods and services.

As Russians well recall, “containment” was a grand strategy premised on the calculation that the isolation of the Soviet Union would ultimately produce its collapse, as defects in the Soviet system took their inevitable toll.  Whatever their imperfections, U.S. policies toward China since 1972  have been based on engagement, not containment.  These policies have helped to draw China into a world order it once shunned and to propel it toward ever greater wealth and power.  The Chinese and American economies are now heavily interdependent.  The concept of “containment” is totally inapplicable to China.  No one in the United States advocates applying it.

But everywhere along its borders, in relation to its neighbors, China now appears to have the military upper hand.  If fear of bullying by China is not to provoke the formation of coalitions in opposition to China, smaller, weaker Asian countries must be confident that they will not be subjected  to power politics or the use of force.  In its politico-military dimension, U.S. policy is directed at providing this reassurance.

It is entirely natural that China’s neighbors should seek American backing as they work out new relationships with China and each other that reflect the changing balances of power in Asia.  China also quite reasonably expects that the United States will counsel its allies, partners, and friends to avoid acting provocatively toward China.  America is playing this vital role.  It is a role that is consistent with longstanding American support for peaceful resolution of disputes in Asia.  It is also one that is congruent with China’s interest in managing frictions along its borders by measures short of war as it strives for greater wealth and domestic tranquility.

Of course, China cannot be sure that the “pivot,” might not become the basis for attempted American military coercion of it.  It is logical that China should insure itself against this possibility.  Shoring up China’s long-underdeveloped relationship with Russia, which stands on its other flank, is an obvious part of such an effort.  It has also been no secret that China and Russia share a concern about the potential for U.S. missile defense programs and deployments to undermine strategic deterrence.  It is natural too, given its global interests, that China should wish to reach out to regionally powerful states like Brazil, India, and South Africa as well as to developing countries with mineral and other resources that China needs.  I take it that these factors contributed to President Xi Jinping’s decision about where to make his first calls abroad.

On some topics, bilateral dialogue between great powers is not enough.  China, Russia, and the United States have common interests to which we must all three attend.  Korea is a case in point.  Our three countries need urgently to consider how best to sustain peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula in the face of all the challenges now evident there.  Afghanistan is a Central Asian state with a history of harboring and exporting terrorists. In the year ahead, as NATO and U.S. forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, it will be important for China, Russia, and the United States to consult about how best to deal with the possible consequences of this for regional and global security.

These topics and others, I imagine, will be part of the “new pattern of great power relations” that China and America are committed to explore.  The concept of a new style of great power interaction clearly applies to Sino-Russian relations too.  Who knows?  It might even come to inform and improve Russo-American interaction as well.  We must hope so.