China on the Offensive
How the Ukraine War Has Changed Beijing’s Strategy
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT
A key task facing the second Bush administration is devising the proper security architecture for eastern Asia. The United States is confronting several immediate problems, including the North Korean nuclear standoff, tension between China and Taiwan, and Islamist terrorism in Southeast Asia. But a forward-looking foreign policy does not simply manage crises; it shapes the context for future policy choices through the creation of international institutions. Eastern Asia has inherited a series of alliances from the early days of the Cold War. These partnerships remain important as a means of providing predictability and deterrence. But a decade and a half after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is increasingly evident that they do not fit the configuration of politics now taking shape.
The White House has an opportunity to create a visionary institutional framework for the region. In the short term, it can do so by turning the six-party talks on North Korea into a permanent five-power organization that would meet regularly to discuss various security issues in the region, beyond the North Korean nuclear threat. In the long term, Washington will need to consider ways of linking this security dialogue to the various multilateral economic forums now in existence or under consideration, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); the ASEAN-plus-three group, which was formed in the wake of the Asian economic crisis and includes China, Japan, and South Korea; and the developing free-trade areas. Asian multilateralism will be critical not just for coordinating the region's booming economies, but also for damping down the nationalist passions lurking beneath the surface of every Asian country.
TIES THAT BIND
Unlike Europe, Asia lacks strong multilateral political institutions. Europe has the EU and NATO, as well as groups such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (osce) and the Council of Europe. Asia's only counterparts are ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum on security matters, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC)--all of which are far weaker organizations. ASEAN does not include China or the other major players in Northeast Asia, and APEC is no more than a consultative body. Asian security is ensured not by multilateral treaties, but by a series of bilateral relationships centering on Washington, in particular the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the U.S.-South Korean relationship.
The reasons for this difference between Europe and Asia lie in history: European countries are linked by similar cultural origins and their shared experience in the twentieth century, to the point that they have been relinquishing important elements of national sovereignty to the EU. By contrast, there is a much higher degree of distrust among the major players in Asia. This suspicion is driven partly by a changing power balance, as Japan is eclipsed by China, but primarily by memories of the Pacific war. After 1945, both Germany and Japan needed to convince their neighbors that they were no longer threats. The new West Germany did so by ceding sovereignty to a series of multilateral organizations; Japan did so by ceding sovereignty in security affairs to the United States. Security ties thus took on a hub-and-spoke structure in Asia, with Washington playing a central mediating and balancing role.
These bilateral ties remain crucial, particularly the U.S.-Japanese relationship. The U.S. nuclear guarantee and U.S. forces stationed in Japan reassure the rest of Asia that Japan will not rearm in a major way. But this Cold War system of security checks and balances is eroding as new generations take power and face changing environments.
The first problem concerns the United States' relationship with South Korea. With the ascendancy of left-wing Presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun over the past decade, a new generation of Koreans has grown up seeking reconciliation rather than confrontation with North Korea. Many young South Koreans today regard the United States as a greater threat to their security than the regime of Kim Jong Il. This bizarre perception is based on extraordinary illusions. The North Korean dictatorship is one of the most inhumane and dangerous that has ever existed, but the Bush administration misplayed its hand at the beginning of its first term by undercutting President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine" policy of Korean reconciliation--triggering a generational revolt among younger South Koreans against Cold War verities. The reflexive gratitude that South Koreans who lived through the war against the North feel toward the United States is simply absent among the younger generation, which, like its German counterpart, grew up in peace and prosperity.
On the surface, the U.S.-South Korean alliance still looks strong: the current Roh Moo Hyun government has sought to demonstrate its commitment to the relationship by sending military forces to Iraq. But misunderstanding could easily emerge and then spiral as Koreans blame the United States for excessive belligerence toward Pyongyang and the United States reacts to what it perceives as South Korean ingratitude. Preoccupied with terrorism and the Middle East, Washington has already repositioned its forces away from the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas and is planning to draw down its forces in the region.
The United States' relationship with Japan is also changing in ways that are extremely unsettling to the rest of Asia. Prompted by the nuclear threat from Pyongyang, Tokyo is reconsidering the need for more robust defensive forces. Japan's dispatch of peacekeepers to Iraq and its recent confrontations with the North Korean navy demonstrate a willingness to behave like what opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa has called a "normal country." There is a growing consensus in Japan that Article 9 of its postwar constitution--which dictates that it cannot wage war and cannot maintain armed forces--should be revised, even if the process stretches out over a number of years. Although political ties between Washington and Tokyo are stronger today than they have been in many years, the Cold War father-child dependency will inevitably be replaced by something resembling an alliance of equals.
Japan's new posture is to be welcomed. In fact, the United States has been pushing Tokyo to embrace such a new role since the last decade of the Cold War. It is perverse that a country with the world's third-largest economy remains militarily and psychologically dependent on Washington. But the rest of Asia--particularly China and the two Koreas, which were heavily victimized by Japan throughout the first half of the twentieth century--prefers that Japan stay militarily weak. These countries will not welcome the emergence of a stronger and more independent neighbor. Although a Japan with a revised Article 9 should not threaten the rest of Asia, its former victims may not trust in that fact. Japanese rearmament must therefore progress slowly and be managed delicately, with plenty of open communication between Tokyo and other Asian governments.
And then there is China. The world's fastest-growing economy (and one of its largest) has thus far remained largely outside any security pact or alliance, excepting its membership in global institutions such as the UN and the World Trade Organization (WTO). But this relative isolation also is likely to change. In recent years, the Chinese have proposed a blizzard of new Asian multilateral economic arrangements, which could ultimately serve security purposes as well. Beijing's plans have included two agreements with ASEAN (ASEAN plus one and ASEAN plus three, with Japan and North Korea), as well as China-ASEAN and East Asian free-trade areas. Clearly, the Chinese are exerting leadership to ensure that their status in the international political arena matches their growing economic power. Sensing a geoeconomic threat, the Japanese have responded with their own trade pacts, such as the Japan-Singapore free-trade area negotiated by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
China has always presented a great conundrum for the United States. It is the kind of power Washington deals with the least well: a nation that is neither clearly friend nor clearly foe, simultaneously a strategic threat and a critical trade and investment partner. The result has been an inconsistent relationship of pragmatic cooperation punctuated by periodic crises, such as the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the Chinese downing of a U.S. spy plane in 2001. The future of this relationship depends on how Chinese politics evolve: whether China provokes a showdown with Taiwan and uses its economic might to achieve Asian hegemony, or develops into an increasingly pluralistic society in which economic interests dictate continuing good relations with its neighbors.
In the meantime, the United States can adopt one of two approaches: either it can seek to isolate China and mobilize the rest of Asia into a coalition to contain growing Chinese power, or it can try to incorporate China into a series of international institutions designed to channel Chinese ambitions and elicit cooperation.
Despite its appeal among U.S. conservatives, isolating Beijing is a nonstarter. Even if the United States somehow knew that China were a long-term strategic threat on a par with the former Soviet Union, no U.S. ally would enlist in an anti-Chinese coalition any time in the near future. Japan, South Korea, Australia, and ASEAN members all have complex relationships with China that involve varying degrees of cooperation and conflict; absent overt Chinese aggression, none is going to be willing to jeopardize those ties.
Incorporating China into existing global institutions has already proved very effective. In 2001, when the question of Chinese membership in the WTO came up, some argued that China would only subvert the WTO by breaking its rules. As it is, being a part of the WTO has promoted the rule of law by giving Chinese reformers an excuse to make systemic domestic changes. These modifications--which were in China's self-interest anyway--include replacing the traditional system of corrupt, nepotistic business dealings with more transparent and open rules. As Evan Medeiros and Taylor Fravel have pointed out, over the past decade China has shifted its posture from that of an aggrieved victim of Western imperialism to that of an increasingly responsible member of the international community.
THE MULTILATERAL IMPERATIVE
Asia needs to develop a new set of multilateral organizations in parallel with the existing bilateral organizations. Over time, a new set of institutions can take over many of the functions performed by bilateral agreements. But this new multilateralism cannot come into being without the strong support of the United States, which is why a creative re-evaluation of Asia must be a top priority for George W. Bush in his second term.
Washington clearly derives some benefits from the present system of U.S.-centric bilateral alliances. The United States gains unique sanction for its military and political presence in the region and is in a strong position to prevent the emergence of hostile coalitions. Washington also often serves as the conduit for messages and security plans sent from one Asian capital to another, giving it leverage.
Balanced against these considerations is a simple but strong reason for promoting a multilateral system. With the end of the Cold War and the continuing economic development of eastern Asia, power relationships are changing in ways that have unlocked nationalist passions and rivalries. The potential for misunderstanding and conflict among South Korea, Japan, and China will be significant in the coming years--but it can be mitigated if multiple avenues of discussion exist between the states.
Several recent incidents have brought latent tensions to the surface. Despite burgeoning trade between China and South Korea, relations recently became strained when government-sponsored Chinese researchers asserted that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, which 2,000 years ago stretched along the current China-North Korea border, was once under Chinese control. The ensuing fight had to be papered over with a five-point accord negotiated by the countries' foreign ministries. Beijing's motives for allowing publication of the article are unclear, but they may have been related to rising nationalism in China and loose talk in Seoul about founding a "greater Korea" that would include not just the North and the South but also the more than 2 million ethnic Koreans currently living in Manchuria.
Meanwhile, the growing economic interdependence of China and Japan has not mitigated nationalist passions, but exacerbated them. At an Asian Cup soccer game in August 2004 in Beijing, Chinese fans screamed, "Kill! Kill! Kill!" at the winning Japanese team, forcing it to flee China. This event followed on the heels of several other ugly and apparently spontaneous displays of anti-Japanese feeling and outrage over the use of hired female "companions" in southern China by 300 Japanese businessmen.
Heightening security concerns threaten the Japanese-South Korean relationship and could spark an arms race. Ten years ago, while doing research in Tokyo, I was told by a number of officers in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces that in the event of Korean unification, the combined military of North and South Korea would be close to ten times the size of Japan's. If Korean troop strength did not fall dramatically at that point, they said, Japan would have to take appropriate defensive measures. Not only does this risk remain, but today there is the added factor of North Korea's nuclear weapons--and what a potentially united Korea would do with them. In a recent Tokyo Shimbun poll, 83 of 724 members of the Japanese Diet said publicly that Japan should consider becoming a nuclear power in light of the North Korean threat, an assertion that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Asia is not about to descend into a downward spiral of nationalist fervor, but the potential for dangerous miscommunication clearly exists. Establishing a multilateral structure would help greatly by giving Northeast Asia's major powers a forum for talking directly to one another. Nato, with its regular schedule of ministerial meetings, has performed this service in Europe for several decades. Defense ministers lay out their spending plans and force structures, and foreign ministers explain their respective nation's political actions. If the Chinese and Korean governments are worried about the meaning of Japanese rearmament, or if the Japanese and Chinese leaderships are concerned about Korea's postunification intentions, a multilateral forum would give them an opportunity to defuse anxieties and articulate expectations.
The U.S. stance on multilateralism in Asia has been erratic and contradictory. The United States sponsored organizations such as the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization and APEC. But when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad sought to counter APEC in 1989 with a proposal for an East Asian Economic Caucus that would exclude the United States, it was firmly rejected by Washington as a scheme to keep "white" powers out of the Asian club. During the early 1990s, the Clinton administration promoted an informal Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue between the countries that are now participating in the six-party talks. This process continues today, but it has never been elevated to a formal level.
Many of the more recent proposals for eastern Asian multilateral institutions have focused on economic issues stemming from the 1997-98 financial crisis. In the view of many eastern Asian countries, the United States and U.S.-influenced international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank exploited the crisis to push a pro-market agenda on Asia. When Japan proposed an Asian IMF in 1999, Washington summarily rejected the idea but offered nothing in its place to act as an institutional coordinating mechanism capable of mitigating a future crisis. As a result, nations in the region have been building new multilateral organizations on their own. These include the Chiang Mai Initiative, which allows the central banks from 13 countries to swap reserves in the event of a speculative attack, and the ASEAN-plus-three forum. So far, the United States has either ignored or been indifferent to these developments.
In an ironic twist, however, Washington has stumbled into a new Asian multilateral framework: the ongoing six-party talks on Korean security and nuclear weapons involving the United States, North and South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. Washington embraced this arrangement after Pyongyang, in the wake of the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework, insisted on talking directly to the Americans about the future of its nuclear programs. U.S. policymakers correctly saw this as an effort to divide the United States from its South Korean ally and insisted on multilateral talks instead. Over time, another important motive emerged: only China had the economic leverage to bring North Korea to the bargaining table. Indeed, Beijing strong-armed Pyongyang into accepting the six-party format by briefly cutting off its energy supplies.
The multilateral security framework that has unexpectedly emerged in Northeast Asia provides an excellent opportunity for institutional innovation. If and when the immediate crisis over North Korea's nuclear program passes, a permanent five-power organization could serve as a direct channel for communication between China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States. The new group would not be a NATO-like military alliance, but would instead resemble the OSCE--with 55 member states, the world's largest regional security organization--and deal with second-order security issues.
PARTY OF FIVE
A five-power forum would be particularly useful in dealing with several foreseeable problems. The first is a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime. In the short run, such an implosion would cause huge difficulties: coordinating relief efforts, dealing with refugees, paying for reconstruction, and containing any violence that might ensue. Over the long run, the political deck in Northeast Asia would be reshuffled: the rationale for the U.S.-South Korean alliance would disappear, and tensions between a unified Korea and Japan and China could rise for reasons already indicated--all of which would be easier to tackle in a pre-existing multilateral setting.
Another issue is Japanese rearmament. Japan will not revise Article 9 this year or the next, but the handwriting is on the wall. Although rearmament should not threaten China and Korea, they will have many incentives to hype a new Japanese threat; China, in particular, has used anti-Japanese sentiment to bolster the communist regime's nationalist credentials. Germany, which rearmed and has been moving down a similar path toward "normalcy," moderated the threat by encasing its sovereignty in several international institutions, including NATO, the EU, and the UN. A Japanese return to normality will seem much less threatening if done within a regional security organization as well as a continuing bilateral relationship with the United States. But the new group's relevance wouldn't stop there. A fully nuclear North Korea, a possible Asian arms race, the implications of Chinese military modernization--these are just a few of the potential problems a five-power body could tackle.
At the same time, such a permanent forum would not be an appropriate venue for other important matters. It would not help deter a Chinese threat to Taiwan, though it could conceivably provide a forum for resolving a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Nor would the five-power organization be able to directly influence security problems in Southeast Asia. Whether it may one day do so by admitting more members is a question for the future.
There will be substantial practical obstacles to transforming the current six-party talks into a permanent organization. To start, hard-liners in the United States will immediately object that the six-party format has already proved ineffective: after three rounds of meetings in August 2003, February 2004, and June 2004, the negotiations seem to be going nowhere. In fact, the North Koreans used the first meeting to announce their intention to test a nuclear weapon, and they have generally thumbed their noses at U.S. efforts to constrain their nuclear program. Washington hoped to use the multilateral approach to isolate Pyongyang; instead, the North Koreans have turned the tables on the Americans and lined up support from China and South Korea for a more accommodating line. Given this track record, and Chinese ambivalence toward the North Korean threat, why make this particular format permanent?
The answer is that the United States needs allies--the same reason the six-party talks came into existence in the first place. Those who are hawkish on North Korea seem to think that once the diplomatic track has played itself out, Washington can use the threat of force to pressure Pyongyang to back down. Although military options at this point seem off the table even for the hawks, hope remains that the United States can somehow bring about North Korean regime change by means other than war; unilaterally impose a tough embargo that will keep nuclear materials bottled up and increase pressure on the North; or frighten the Chinese and the South Koreans into cooperating on a more confrontational policy.
By itself, however, the United States does not have sufficient leverage to implement any of these strategies. Alone, Washington cannot force the North to back away from its nuclear program or cajole Beijing and Seoul into an anti-North Korea alliance, given their domestic policy preferences. The current multilateral negotiations, for all their limitations, remain the best U.S. option. The Bush administration hard-liners began talks with the assumption that no negotiated solution could work, given the failure of the 1994 Agreed Framework, and therefore have never sought to define a realistic new deal. Perhaps if the White House does this during Bush's second term, Pyongyang, rather than Washington, will become the isolated power.
The second major obstacle to creating a permanent five-power organization is North Korea itself, which does not belong in any responsible community of nations, given its human rights and security record. Pressing ahead too rapidly to convert narrowly focused six-party negotiations into a permanent five-power organization could undermine the current talks and lead to North Korean obstructionism on all fronts. The trick will be to isolate Pyongyang within the six-party format while making the other five powers comfortable with the prospect of working together over the long term. North Korea's current refusal to return to the talks may even present an occasion for a five-power meeting without Pyongyang. The larger goal aside, this strategy is something Washington should work toward to increase the pressure on Pyongyang. Eventually, the United States may be able to put new issues on the table for the five powers to discuss.
If the transition to a permanent five-power structure can somehow be made, other issues will have to be addressed as well. Should other countries in the region, such as India, New Zealand, Australia, or any of the ASEAN members, be added? Should there be an official link between the new group and the ASEAN Regional Forum, or should individual ASEAN states be considered for membership?
Finally, there is the question of how a security forum of five powers or more would relate to the Asian multilateral economic groups already taking shape or being proposed, such as the Chiang Mai Initiative or ASEAN plus three. Should the United States support regional economic integration even if it does not have a seat at the table, as it has supported the EU? Or should Washington regard economic multilateralism as a threat and weaken these initiatives in favor of global organizations such as the Bretton Woods institutions or the WTO?
Whether the United States likes it or not, the countries of eastern Asia have a strong incentive to increase their formal multilateral economic cooperation: global institutions such as the IMF are distrusted as overly dominated by the United States and unresponsive to Asian concerns. Washington would better serve its interests by supporting and shaping the evolution of these institutions from the outside, rather than by playing an obstructionist role. The United States can cement its formal role in eastern Asia by maintaining its network of bilateral alliances and by working toward a new multilateral security organization. Ultimately, Washington's relationship with Asian multilateral organizations would mirror the relationships it has with the EU and NATO--dealing with one from the outside and the other from the inside. Whatever multilateral institutions take shape in Asia will never achieve the strength and cohesion of their European counterparts, but the United States should regard them as hedges against the possible unraveling of the existing bilateral security system.
The final and perhaps most urgent reason for the Bush administration to re-envision its approach to Asian diplomacy has as much to do with the United States' status in the world as with its standing in eastern Asia. The Iraq war has isolated Washington in unprecedented ways and convinced a large part of the world that the United States--not Islamist terrorism--is the biggest threat to global security.
To climb out of this hole, the White House needs to start thinking creatively about legitimacy and international organizations. Considering that it has already snubbed the UN and refused to participate in the International Criminal Court or the Kyoto Protocol, Washington must now consider alternatives to international cooperation that better suit its interests. The United States will be better served by endorsing a series of overlapping and occasionally competitive multilateral organizations than by putting all its eggs in a single basket such as the UN. A permanent five-power organization in eastern Asia would help provide the foundation for the new order in that region--a small building block in a larger multi-multilateral edifice.
The idea of permanently institutionalizing the six-party talks has been discussed with increasing frequency in Washington policy circles in recent months. Such an organization will not come about, however, unless President George W. Bush decides to take the initiative to make it happen. The advent of a new term for Bush and his administration provides a fortuitous opportunity to reconceive the United States' long-term political architectures. Being the sole superpower bestows a certain responsibility for the global public good. It means not just exercising hard military power against rogue states, but also shaping the international environment in anticipation of new political demands. The United States stepped up to this challenge after 1945; it should do so again in the post-September 11 world.