Three major factors have constantly troubled Sino-U.S. relations in the post-Cold War era: human rights, trade, and security. With the de-linking of China’s human rights record from its MFN treatment in 1994 and the closing of Beijing-Washington marathon negotiations on China’s WTO membership in 1999, human rights and trade may subside as major sources of tension on the bilateral agenda. Security issues, emerging in the mid-1990s, now appear to be the most important factor affecting bilateral relations.
Due primarily to differences in their worldviews, historical experiences and capabilities, China and the U.S. have diverging conceptions of security, which in turn has led to their different security practices. Chinese and U.S. security interests in Asia both converge and diverge, and as the U.S. begins to contemplate China as a latent adversary, such divergence will become even more conspicuous. While both sides will continue to pursue their own security interests in Asia, each country also has to adapt itself to the changing political, economic and security landscape in this region. To enable durable, peaceful coexistence, both sides will have to make certain shifts in their current security policies.
To address these questions more directly, this paper first considers some of the U.S. misperceptions about China’s policy objectives in the Asia-Pacific and certain important conceptual differences on security practices between Beijing and Washington. Then, the study explores how China perceives the U.S. impact on its security interests. Finally, the paper concludes with a few policy recommendations as to how China and the United States could manage the bilateral relationship more effectively.
Misperceptions and Conceptual Differences
One popular perception in the U.S. about China’s long-term policy objectives in Asia is that Beijing aspires to be the regional hegemon and would like to restore a Sino-centric order in this part of the world. This observation is wrong. First, Beijing believes in the trend of multipolarization rather than unipolarization at both global and regional levels, and predicts that with continued economic development and growing intra-regional political consultation in Asia, influence on regional affairs will be more diversified and more evenly distributed. Secondly, even though China expects some relative increase in its influence in Asia, it understands that because of the limits of its hard power and especially its soft power, China can never achieve a position comparable to its role in the ancient past or to the U.S. role in the region at present.
Another misperception is that in the long run China will endeavor to drive the U.S. out of East Asia. Again this is not a correct assumption. From Beijing’s perspective, the United States is an Asia-Pacific power, although not an Asian power, and its political, economic and security interests in the region are deep-rooted, as are its commitments to regional stability and prosperity. In fact, Beijing has always welcomed a constructive U.S. role in regional affairs. At the same time however, Beijing also feels uneasy with certain aspects of U.S. policy. As a superpower, the United States has been too dominant and intrusive in managing regional affairs. It fails to pay due respect to the voices of other regional players, and sometimes gets too involved in the internal affairs of other states, lacking an understanding of their culture, history and values. While there is no danger of the U.S. being driven out of East Asia, its current policy may result in the U.S. wearing out its welcome in the region, thus undermining its contributions to stability and prosperity.
In addition to the above misperceptions about China’s regional intentions, the United States and China also hold diverging conceptions of national and regional security.
Hegemonic stability vs. security cooperation
In the post-Cold War era, Washington has been advocating an Asia-Pacific security structure with the U.S. as the sole leader and with U.S.-led bilateral alliances as the backbone. This is in essence hegemonic stability. Beijing believes, however, that regional security rests on the cooperation of regional members and a blend of various useful approaches (unilateral, bilateral and multilateral, institutional and non-institutional, track I and track II, etc.), not just on one single country and a set of bilateral security alliances.
Unilateral security vs. mutual security
The United States currently possesses the most powerful military in the world. However, it continues to pump resources into its defense industry to develop even more sophisticated offensive weaponry, thus retaining its paramount superiority in both conventional and strategic arsenals. At the same time, Washington has been pursuing both national missile defense (NMD) and theater missile defense (TMD) systems, aimed at protecting itself from other countries. However, this kind of unilateral security comes at the expense of others’ security.
The Chinese believe that security is always mutual, and when one side tries to enhance its security, it has to take into account the impact on the security of others. While any country has the legitimate right to develop its defensive and offensive capability as it likes, a responsible power should avoid seeking unilateral security and instead should promote mutual or common security.
Absolute security vs. relative security
In terms of capability, the United States is now the most secure country in the world. Any other country that initiates an attack on the U.S. would invite destructive retaliation. Gauged by a notional security coefficient, the U.S. is now ninety-nine percent secure in dealing with external military threats. Yet, Washington seems intent on seeking absolute, or one-hundred percent, security by continuing to invest in both defensive and offensive weapons. Nevertheless, if the United States were absolutely secure, other countries would then be absolutely insecure, totally subject to threats or coercion of the U.S. To avoid such a situation, they will certainly react by developing their own capabilities, which would result in an arms buildup cycle, wasted resources and eventually, increased tensions. The Chinese, on the other hand, believe in relative security rather than absolute security. They would be content with simply preserving a reliable deterrence capability, both conventional and strategic. As Chinese security experts contend, there is simply no such thing as absolute security, and any effort geared in that direction is both irresponsible and futile.
Military security vs. comprehensive security
In the post-Cold War era, with the decline of the likelihood of a war between major powers and the rise of nontraditional security challenges, military means have become less relevant in the national security equation. Nonetheless, the United States remains heavily dependent upon military approaches, preserving its superior military power, strengthening its security alliances and maintaining its forward deployments. Surprisingly, the United States uses force even more frequently than it did in the Cold War era.
In contrast to the force-prone military security approach on the part of the United States, China has been advocating the concept of comprehensive security since the demise of the Cold War. In Beijing’s opinion, security is best enhanced by improving political relations, expanding economic interactions and pursuing security cooperation, such as transparency, CBMs and military-to-military relations. China believes that overemphasizing military approaches not only does not help resolve disputes, but also runs counter to the prevailing trend of peace and development in the post-Cold War era.
Alignment security vs. non-alignment security
During the Cold War era, the United States forged security alliances with many countries to pursue strategic competition with the Soviet Union and to contain the Communist countries. With the end of the Cold War, Washington expanded NATO in Europe and reaffirmed its security alliance with Japan and other Asia-Pacific allies. American policy makers constantly argue that security alliances remain the basis for U.S. security strategy in the Asia-Pacific. From a Chinese perspective, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, there should be no reason to preserve, and certainly not expand and strengthen, military blocs. Military blocs, while enhancing the security of some countries, undermine the security of other states, and cause suspicion, division and even aggravate confrontation. Therefore, China advocates the replacement of military blocs with normal state-to-state relations, with a stress on improving and enhancing political and economic relations, rather than security ties.
The differences in security concepts between China and the United States issue from a wide range of factors. One is the difference in their respective worldviews. Washington enjoys a unipolar world with the U.S. on top. Hegemonic stability is nothing but a corollary of this logic. Beijing, on the other hand, insists on the trend of multipolarization and rejects the idea of security under U.S. leadership. The second factor is the difference in available resources. The United States, as the only superpower in the post-Cold War world, feels less subject to external constraints on its use of force. With more resources than any other country in the world, the U.S. has the material basis to seek military superiority and absolute security. China, as a developing country, would like to devote its limited resources to its economic development, and would prefer an international environment in which disputes between nations are managed by peaceful means.
A third factor relates to different historical experiences. The United States benefited from its alliance arrangements during the Cold War era and wishes to preserve these assets in the post-Cold War world. China, on the other hand, does not have good memories about its alliance with the Soviet Union; besides, U.S. alliance arrangements in Asia were once directly or indirectly aimed at China. The final factor is the difference in their respective security philosophies. The Americans are basically technology determinists and believe in the prowess of technology. In their opinion, with technological progress, everything is possible. The Chinese are more dialectical in their thinking. They believe nothing is absolute; if one side develops capable defensive or offensive weapons systems, then the other side will respond by developing their own means to nullify those weapons systems.
How the U.S. Affects China’s Security Interests
U.S. security policy in the Asia-Pacific region directly affects China’s security interests, both positively or negatively. The positive side includes the following:
1. The United States has been playing a key role in maintaining a generally stable security environment in East Asia since the end of the Vietnam War, and China has been both a significant contributor to and a major beneficiary of peace and stability in the region.
2. United States policy towards Japan, despite its shortcomings, has so far helped to ensure that Japan remains a pacifist country, which serves the interests of both Japan and the entire region.
3. On the Korean peninsula, China and U.S. share three policy goals: no war between the North and South; no nuclear weapons; and no collapse of North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK). In fact, China and the United States are the two primary suppliers of food assistance to the DPRK. Looking into the future, both Beijing and Washington welcome reconciliation and peaceful mutual integration between the two Koreas.
4. In South Asia, both China and the United States would like to see the peaceful settlement of the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, and a halt to the emerging nuclear arms race between New Delhi and Islamabad.
5. Even on the Taiwan issue, a highly contentious one between China and the United States, Washington’s “one China” policy since the late 1970s has contributed to stability in the Taiwan Strait. Furthermore, the U.S. opposition to Taiwan’s development or procurement of nuclear weapons also serves China’s interests.
On the other hand, some U.S. security practices in the Asia-Pacific challenge China’s security interests. To illustrate, consider China’s three principle security interests in the Asia-Pacific: stability on its periphery, a favorable strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific, and peaceful unification of Taiwan.
The Korean peninsula is one of China’s major concerns with regard to stability on its periphery. In the short term, China and the United States seem to have common interests on the Korean issue. In the long run, however, U.S. strategy is of grave concern to China. Policymakers in Washington have already made it clear that after Korean unification, they seek to retain the security alliance with a unified Korea and maintain its military presence on the peninsula.
For geo-strategic reasons, China naturally feels concerned with any security presence of other major powers on the peninsula. Although China does not intend to turn the peninsula into its own sphere of influence or backyard, it would certainly be undesirable for any other power to attempt to do so.
Basically, any future security arrangement in a post-unified Korea would be subject to the following variables. First and foremost, the structure of any arrangement would depend on the security needs and public opinion on the peninsula. Second, concerns of the surrounding countries should also be taken into account, and post-unification security arrangements on the peninsula should help shape a better security environment, not worsen it. Finally, security arrangements in a unified Korea should take a forward-looking posture and reflect the emerging trend of political reconciliation, economic integration and security cooperation.
In Southeast Asia, China’s major security concern lies with the South China Sea dispute. Washington has announced that its priority is the peaceful solution of the disputes and retaining freedom of navigation in the region, and that it has no intention to either get involved in the disputes or take a position on them. However, Beijing has reason to be concerned with recent shifts in U.S. policy on this issue.
Since the Meiji (Mischief) Reef incident in 1995, the U.S. position on the South China Sea dispute has shifted from passive neutrality to active neutrality. Since 1995, the U.S. has stepped up its security presence in the region, including port access arrangements in Southeast Asia and joint military exercises with the Philippines. Undoubtedly, increasing the U.S. military presence in the region is aimed at “constricting” Chinese activities in the South China Sea. In addition, the United States has been working hard to encourage Southeast Asian countries to form a kind of “United Front” against China with regard to both the South China Sea disputes and growing Chinese power. For instance, during his visit to Vietnam in March 2000, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen openly made such an appeal to Hanoi. Washington also has expressed its interest in seeing the South China Sea issue discussed within the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), in spite of the Chinese preference for bilateral dealings. In Washington’s calculus, ARF management of the issue would not only facilitate ASEAN states acting in concert against China, but would also enable the United States and possibly Japan to become involved in this matter. From the Chinese perspective, given U.S. security ties with the Philippines and other ASEAN countries, Washington cannot serve as an “honest broker.”
Since the 1990s, Central Asia has become increasingly important to China’s peripheral security. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islamic fundamentalism has extended its influence into the newly independent Central Asian states and infiltrated into China’s Xinjiang province, a Muslim-majority region. The splittist groups in Xinjiang are believed to receive financial and armed assistance from some Central Asian countries. Since the mid-1990s, China has become a net oil-importer, and Beijing is interested in securing oil supplies from the Caspian region where oil can be transported by pipeline to China through Central Asia.
Over the past several years however, the United States has significantly expanded its activities in this region, seeking to advance its strategic, political and energy interests. Washington has strengthened its military cooperation with some Central Asian countries (including joint military exercises, training and provision of arms, etc), and has shown great interest in bringing Central Asia into NATO. As Amy Jaffe and Robert Manning correctly pointed out: “Imagine the American reaction if the Chinese army held joint exercises with Mexico across the border from San Diego.”
Beijing would look to the following three major indicators of a stable strategic environment: a rough balance of power among major regional powers, indications that the United States does not intend to contain China either single-handedly or in concert with others, and the maintenance of China’s credible deterrence vis-à-vis other major powers. China believes all three have deteriorated as a result of recent U.S. policy decisions.
As a major actor in the Asia-Pacific, China is very sensitive to any shift in the regional power balance. In the wake of the Cold War, Beijing predicted two emerging trends in East Asia. One is the rise of China and Japan relative to Russia and, to a lesser extent, the United States, and the other is the burgeoning multipolarization process in the region. Beijing believes these overall developments represent the proper orientation of international politics in East Asia. However, with the redefinition of the U.S.-Japan alliance, those trends were thwarted and the regional power balance tilted against China.
In Beijing’s opinion, the redefined U.S.-Japan alliance presages Washington-Tokyo domination of regional affairs and smacks of an ulterior intention to marginalize China. In the end, China has either to accept a submissive position in a U.S.-Japan dominated regional system or be isolated. Redefinition of the U.S.-Japan alliance also provides Japan with a legitimate cover to play a more active role in regional security and further build up its already impressive military capability. As a matter of fact, it seems just a matter of time before Japan will redefine the constraints of the Peace Constitution and behave as a major military power.4 Beijing is concerned over the extent of Japan’s buildup and how it will affect the regional balance of power.
Over the mid-1990s, Washington’s strategy toward Beijing steadily moved to deal with a potential challenge from China, with a blend of deterrence and engagement. On the security front, the U.S. applies tactics of constraints and prevention. The United States has been paying more attention to China’s defense modernization process, and is trying to slow it down by obstructing China’s procurement of advanced defense technology and weapons systems from other countries.
On the political front, by keeping pressure on human rights issues in China, Washington has been attempting to influence China’s internal political developments. In contrast to the 1980s when the United States was willing to see a stronger China balance Soviet expansion, in the 1990s the U.S. has been more concerned with China’s growing capability. As a result, U.S. political-strategic pressure on China has been steadily expanding. In other words, if U.S. has not yet started to contain China, it certainly has acted to guard against and constrict China.
Threatened twice by the United States with nuclear strikes in the 1950s (first during the Korean War and then in the first Taiwan Strait Crisis), China was forced to develop its strategic weaponry and became a nuclear power in the mid-1960s. Beijing, however, was content with a credible minimum strategic deterrent vis-à-vis other major powers and therefore was not involved in the Cold War arms race between Washington and Moscow.
U.S. plans to develop both NMD and TMD systems, however, have undermined Beijing’s confidence in its strategic deterrent. By initiating both NMD and TMD programs, the U.S. may not only nullify China’s strategic deterrent, but will also develop more advanced offensive weaponry with technologies obtained from those programs. Also, by bringing Japan into the R&D stage of TMD programs, Tokyo will be able to share the related missile technology and further improve its missile capabilities. Under such circumstances, if Beijing is going to maintain a credible minimum strategic deterrent, it has to substantively enhance its strategic weaponry program, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Some may argue that China would upgrade its strategic arsenal in any event. However, the pace and scale of the modernization efforts would be much lower should Washington not initiate those programs.
The Taiwan issue tops China’s strategic agenda for historical, political, nationalistic and strategic reasons. Since 1979, Beijing has been pursuing a peaceful solution of the issue, and it views U.S. involvement in the issue as a major obstacle in achieving this goal. In general, China holds three assumptions about U.S. policy towards Taiwan. Strategically, the U.S. still views Taiwan as part of its “sphere of influence” in the Western Pacific, a quasi-ally in the region. Politically, the U.S. favors Taiwan’s independence. Only the fear of a war across the Taiwan strait restrains the U.S. to support the status quo. Militarily, U.S. will continue to provide Taiwan with all kinds of assistance, including the transfer of advanced arms and military technology, intelligence, and training. Should the PRC resort to the use of force to unify Taiwan, the U.S. will certainly intervene.
China has found expanding political and military relations between Washington and Taipei particularly intolerable. After the normalization of Sino-U.S. relations, Washington was supposed to maintain only “unofficial relations” with Taipei, as stipulated in the U.S.-China normalization communiqué. However, the Taiwan Relations Act awarded Taiwan the legal status of a state, enabling the U.S. to maintain quasi-official relations with Taiwan. Since the end of the Cold War, political ties between Washington and Taipei have been remarkably strengthened. Now U.S. cabinet members (excluding the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense) can go to Taiwan, while Taiwan’s cabinet members (except for its Defense Minister) can travel to the United States. In 1995, Taiwan’s top leader Lee Teng-hui was even granted a visa to visit Cornell University, on what was allegedly a private trip, but actually turned out to be a highly political one.
Beijing is most concerned with U.S.-Taiwan military ties. First of all, the frequent transfer of large amount of advanced weapons to Taiwan violates the 1982 communiqué signed by Beijing and Washington, in which the U.S. side promised to reduce gradually its arms sales to Taiwan. Secondly, Washington always claims that the continuous arms supply to Taiwan will enhance its sense of security, and that the more secure Taiwan feels, the more likely Taipei would be willing to sit down to negotiate with Beijing. This is simply not true. In fact, the more weapons Taiwan secures, the more reluctant it will be to talk to the mainland. In other words, U.S. military assistance to Taiwan provides it with a false sense of security and strengthens its resistance to any political solution. Thirdly, U.S. military assistance also emboldens separatist tendencies on Taiwan. Finally, in case separatist forces in Taiwan take the final step to independence, Beijing will have to use force to preserve China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In sum, while Washington claims it prefers a peaceful solution of the Taiwan question, its military assistance?particularly the arms transfers?to Taiwan has undermined the chances for a peaceful settlement.
These U.S. challenges to China’s security interests can be attributed to three factors. One is the desire to establish a hegemonic order in the Asia-Pacific and, for that purpose, to install an U.S.-led regional system by which Beijing feels threatened. Another is the overreaction to the rise of China. For ideological and/or strategic reasons, many people in the United States view the rise of China as a major challenge, and some even compare China to Germany before the two world wars. While Washington may believe its measures are purely preventive, they are in many cases offensive and excessive, and cause China to feel encircled and constricted. Third, the U.S. lacks understanding regarding China’s legitimate national interests, especially on the Taiwan issue. Although the United States is a country which fought a civil war to keep its national unity, it does not view sympathetically China’s aspiration for national unification.
The U.S. faces a most daunting foreign policy task in managing its relations with a rising China. Only by adapting themselves to a changing regional political and security landscape will the U.S. and China be able to peacefully coexist. Given the relative power imbalance, Washington has far greater leeway 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 can ignite a major military conflict between Beijing and Washington. To untie this knot, the United States should take a fresh look at the issue. It has to understand that this is basically a matter of nation-building for China, not an American geopolitical or ideological issue.
Much has been said about China’s budding nationalism, which is actually a rediscovery and ardent pursuit of China’s national interests, developing alongside a decline in ideological attraction. If there is any issue that can fan the tinder of China’s nationalism into raging flames, it is the Taiwan question. The past has shown that when the United States confronts nationalism in other countries, it seldom succeeds. For Taiwan to gain security, international space 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, it is almost certain that Beijing will have to resort to the use of force. Even if the PRC is not able to take over Taiwan, it certainly can throw the island into chaos. Compared with such a horrible scenario, peaceful unification across the Taiwan Strait is in the best interests of Beijing, Taipei and Washington.
As long as its current U.S. Taiwan policy continues, Washington will remain unable to stabilize its relations with a rising China. Beijing will remain suspicious of the U.S. security presence in East Asia, and U.S. leadership and strategic initiatives in both regional and global affairs will not receive Beijing’s due endorsement. If the Taiwan issue can be resolved peacefully, however, then China will become a status quo power in the political-security sense and Sino-U.S. relations will be far more stable, healthy and constructive. China-U.S. cooperation would thus stand as a strong force for regional security and prosperity. As Mao Zedong told Richard Nixon in 1972, “the world is a big thing, and Taiwan is a small thing.” The U.S. must thus take a broader strategic view of the Taiwan issue.
Based on such an understanding, Washington should encourage Taipei to sit down and negotiate with Beijing about a reasonable arrangement for unification. Meanwhile, on the issue of arms sales to Taiwan, the United States should adopt a more sensible and responsible approach. It should take into account the negative impact of arms sales on Taiwan’s political dynamics, and should avoid either focusing on the military balance across the Taiwan Strait or being tempted by commercial incentives. Instead, Washington can play the role of an honest broker by coming up with some useful and creative ideas about the reconciliation across the Taiwan Strait.
As to U.S. alliances, it is understood that this arrangement has awarded the United States unparalleled strategic influence in the region. However, the rationale for maintaining a substantive military deployment in Northeast Asia is fading away. With the forthcoming reconciliation and ultimate unification of the Korean peninsula and resumption of “normal state” status for Japan, U.S. military presence on a large scale in this region will not be politically sustainable either domestically or in Asia.
As the international environment changes, Washington should try to find new ways to bolster its influence. For instance, base-access arrangements will be more sustainable politically and less expensive financially. Also, the revolution in military affairs and improvement of rapid-reaction capability will make it unnecessary for the U.S. to retain current deployment levels abroad. In this era of growing economic interdependence and deepening regional integration, it is more sensible for the U.S. to lead by shaping the rules of the game and building security communities rather than seeking influence via its military muscle.
As Washington redefines its security ties with Japan and others, it has alarmed and alienated those like China who have become very suspicious U.S. strategic intentions. Threatened countries naturally respond by aligning with each other. The China-Russian partnership, although still far from an alliance, has become more substantive over the past several years in response to U.S. security policy in Asia and Europe. Washington should lay more stress on the political rather than the military function of its alliance structure, namely, it should seek closer diplomatic consultation and coordination among allies in dealing with regional issues and abstain from rattling the alliance saber.
Foresight is needed here. Given the evolving political, security and economic trends in East Asia, ten years from now, U.S. security involvement in the region will have to be transformed both in form and substance. Forward military presence will decline, security alliances will become less relevant as an instrument of U.S. security policy, and a pluralistic security community will very likely emerge.
The establishment of a security community in the Asia-Pacific 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 among themselves. 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 play a significant role, not as a hegemon, but as a key player.
Regarding Japan’s future development, although it is mainly Japan’s internal dynamics that propel it toward a normal major power status, outsiders, particularly the United States, do have a role to play in shaping J
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