Whoever wins the presidential election in the United States will face a daunting foreign policy task in managing U.S. relations with a resurgent China. Only by adapting to a changing regional political and security landscape will America and China be able to coexist peacefully. Given the relative power imbalance, Washington has far greater leeway than Beijing to adjust its security policy in Asia.
The Taiwan question lies at the crux of U.S.-China security entanglements. It is probably the only issue that could ignite a military conflict between the two countries. To untie this knot, Washington should take a fresh look at the issue. It has to understand that this is basically a matter of nation building for China, not a U.S. geopolitical or ideological issue.
Much has been said about China’s budding nationalism. This is actually a rediscovery and ardent pursuit of China’s national interests. If there is any issue that can enflame China’s nationalism, it is Taiwan.
For Taiwan to gain security and more economic opportunities, it has to accept some form of association with the mainland while preserving the greatest possible political autonomy.
If Taiwan seeks formal independence, Beijing will almost certainly resort to force. Even if it is not able to take over Taiwan, it can throw the island into chaos. Compared with such a scenario, peaceful unification across the Taiwan Strait is in the best interests of Beijing, Taipei and Washington.
As long as its current Taiwan policy continues, Washington will remain unable to stabilize its relations with China. Beijing will remain suspicious of the American security presence in East Asia. U.S. leadership and strategic initiatives in both regional and global affairs will not receive Beijing’s endorsement.
But if the Taiwan issue can be resolved peacefully, then Sino-U.S. relations will be far more stable, healthy and constructive. China-U.S. cooperation would then be a strong force for regional security and prosperity.
Based on such an understanding, Washington should encourage Taipei to sit down and negotiate with Beijing about a reasonable unification arrangement.
On arms sales to Taiwan, America should avoid focusing on the military balance across the Strait or being tempted by commercial incentives. Instead, Washington can play an honest broker role by coming up with some useful and creative ideas about cross-Strait reconciliation.
On the issue of ballistic missile defense deployments in East Asia, Washington should realize that there is no such thing as “absolute security.” As a responsible power, the United States should avoid altering the existing strategic stability and causing an arms race.
In fact, with the reduction of tensions following the Korean summit in June and the gradual improvement in relations between the United States and North Korea, the ostensible reason for deploying a theater missile defense system in East Asia – coping with Pyongyang’s missile threat – is no longer valid. As long as Pyongyang maintains a moratorium on its long-range missile program, Washington should reciprocate with a freezing of its missile defense program, while at the same time making diplomatic efforts to promote arms control in Northeast Asia.
U.S. alliances have given Washington unparalleled strategic influence in the region. But the rationale for maintaining a substantial military deployment in Northeast Asia – where most of the approximately 100,000 American troops in the western Pacific theater are stationed – is fading away. Reconciliation between North and South Korea will lead ultimately to unification of the Korean Peninsula. Internal dynamics are propelling Japan toward normal major power status. In the light of such developments, the U.S. military presence on a large scale will not be politically sustainable either domestically or in Asia.
As the international environment changes, Washington should find new ways to bolster its influence. Arrangements that provide the United States with access to other countries’ bases will be more sustainable politically and less expensive financially than maintaining American bases on foreign soil.
Foresight is needed here. Given the evolving political, security and economic trends in East Asia, 10 years from now U.S. military involvement in the region will have to be transformed both in form and in substance. The presence of American forces in the region will decline, security alliances will be less important, and a pluralistic security community will very likely emerge.
The establishment of an Asia Pacific security community is possible because states in the region have shared interests in a peaceful and stable security environment, and because they increasingly benefit from growing economic interactions. This nascent mechanism for regional security will evolve over time into a more effective means for promoting regional cooperation on security issues.
In this context, the United States will still have a significant role.
For its part, China needs to assure America and other countries that it has no intention of upsetting the existing regional order, and that as long as its legitimate security interests are accommodated, it can live with a regional security structure in which America plays a leading role.
The writer is a professor in international politics at Fudan University in Shanghai