In recent years there have been numerous cases – from the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula to the contentions over the South China Sea – that Asian countries should pay more attention to Asia’s collective security system. The reason for this is quite simple: a collective security system is absent in the region. The absence has given rise to many problems, and plunged the region into insecurity. There are already various sub-regional security mechanisms such as the security dialogues of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), those between ASEAN and other countries in Northeast Asia (namely, China, Japan and South Korea), the six-party talks that center on the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, and above all, America’s security alliances with Japan and South Korea, which are offshoots of the Cold War.
The existing sub-regional security mechanisms feature several distinct characteristics:
First, these mechanisms are incomplete, because none covers the whole of Asia (or even East Asia). Also, any security mechanism that excludes China or the US is not fully counted and will eventually create insecurity.
Second, most of the existing mechanisms are the outcomes of passive reactions to insecurity. The six-party talks, for instance, have been designed to address the nuclear crisis in the DPRK. Confined by their original motives, such mechanisms are unable to achieve regional security in an active sense and are instead designed to prevent insecurity.
Third, some of the mechanisms are unable to exert a substantial influence upon their member nations, such as the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed between China and the ASEAN countries.
Fourth, sub-regional security mechanisms are designed in order for the parties involved to achieve their own security by containing other countries. This feature is particularly obvious in the various security mechanisms established by the US, such as its security alliance with Japan. A product of the Cold War, it has been reinforced to contain China ever since, thus yielding more insecurity.
The result has been a security dilemma in which each country has selfishly acted in its own interests and thereby inflicted greater insecurity on the region. Specifically, this security dilemma has manifested itself in two distinguishable ways: one is conflicts of interest in the Sino-US relationship, and the other is the relationship between these two big nations and other smaller countries. No matter how the Sino-US relationship fares, small countries will always feel anxious when facing these two big powers.
The relationship between any two big nations is inherently tricky, but that between China and the US has become an even greater challenge. The underlying reason is quite simple: one is a rising star on the global stage while the other is a comparatively declining power. Since the start of China’s reform and opening-up, nearly all Asian countries have regarded it as the biggest threat to the security in Asia. This view has been put forth in all Western textbooks on international relations as well as in the mindsets of Westerners: a rising big nation surely feels uncomfortable with its international status and thus would challenge the existing order and supremacy, which would eventually lead to insecurity, conflicts and even wars.
However, history has proved otherwise. The major challenge to Asia’s regional security is more likely to come from a declining power (namely the US) than from a rising nation (namely China).
Since China’s reform and opening-up began three decades ago, China has shown that a rising nation is more confident than a declining power and thus can solve problems in more rational and peaceful ways.
China is a civilized nation with a millennia-old history, which has endowed its major decision-makers with a macro-historical perspective that is rarely found in other big countries. This has enabled them to contemplate long-term issues with foresight. Reason is a very important trait in handling international affairs, but the concept of reason differs fundamentally between the Chinese and the Americans: the former usually stresses the relationship between reason and historical perspectives, while the latter focuses more on how to maximize immediate interests.
As a result, China usually adopts a slow, unhurried approach to handle international issues, including those concerning itself. Although this approach is often labeled a “procrastination strategy” by Western critics, it is actually designed to seek reasonable solutions during a measured process that allows enough time for China to contemplate a problem before tackling it. China regards many problems as developing issues and believes there will always be solutions as long as such deliberation continues. In contrast, the US is more interested in pursuing its immediate interests, and its international conduct is usually designed for efficiency and efficacy.
China has no intention to replace the US as a superpower. Although a small number of Chinese do embrace this notion, the nation as a whole does not. Chinese cultural ideology dictates that if China is indeed growing into a world leader, that it is the result of historical development rather than the result of intentional human effort. The Chinese classic I Ching explains the principle that nothing is fixed: everything in the world is always changing, and the only constant is change itself. Therefore, the rise of a great nation is as unstoppable as the decline of a former power is unavoidable. Human factors may exert some effects, but only to a very limited extent. What really counts is the “force” of objective principles. Thus when dealing with its relations with the US, China has steered away from the path chosen by the Soviet Union – contending with the US for supremacy – and instead chosen to work within the global system in which the US plays the leading role. No doubt this choice was made by Chinese decision-makers, but behind it lies the nation’s cultural roots.
China’s culture has also determined its responsive approach to diplomacy. China’s entire diplomatic system operates in a responsive way, resulting in its “firefighting” responses to international affairs. This approach has been criticized by many people for hindering China’s rise and preventing it from exerting substantial influence in international affairs. Of course, being responsive does not mean China is unable to solve international problems. On the contrary, it has been playing an increasingly important role in world affairs– mainly thanks to its rising national strength. Whether it’s been in international organizations, regional multilateral associations or bilateral relations, it is impossible to overlook China’s influence.
China’s responsive diplomacy has also influenced its ideology on national security. China stresses the defensive rather than the offensive role of national defense. Only after discerning how it would be threatened by other countries’ actions does it respond by developing specific armaments and formulating specific military strategies. It rarely adopts aggressive strategies like the “preemptive” ones taken by the US. This thought pattern has limited China’s innovation in the field of defense. Thus, when facing no discernible external threats, it usually modernizes national defense at its own pace. This approach is different from that of the former Soviet Union and those of pre-WWII Germany and Japan, which were all hegemonic in their will and programs.
China boasts an extraordinary ability for solving problems. Despite so many domestic problems and crises over the last thirty years, it has succeeded in overcoming them one by one. Without considering national systems, large nations are inherently better at tackling problems than small states. When national systems come into play, China exhibits a far greater ability in handling problems than other countries – it even surpasses the US in certain aspects. China has shown remarkable national strength in overcoming the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and the global financial crisis since 2008.
While China has gained confidence in its unstoppable rise, the US confidence has been dampened by its relative decline. Unlike China’s progress, the US is drifting in the opposite direction in many ways.
Firstly, unlike China, the US lacks a macro-historical perspective in its international relations, and thus focuses more on immediate interests than on the long-term. This tendency has been reinforced by its political system: since it is a multi-party political system and each party represents a medley of interests, its diplomacy is affected by a benefit-distribution process. However, it is thanks to the pursuit of short-term interests that the US can always maximize its national agenda. In this sense, its long-term ambitions stem from maximizing its short-term interests at all times.
Second, unlike China, the US is aggressive in its foreign affairs, including when it targets China. As the only existing superpower that has maintained its supremacy, the US fears a potential challenge from China. As a result, how to prevent such challenges seems to have become a top priority. Although Chinese diplomacy is always responsive, the US still interprets its responses as a challenge. In many ways, the US has been aggressive in its tackling of the rise of China. Of course, this US strategy is also the result of its geopolitics: unlike China which faces complicated geopolitics posed by dozens of neighboring countries, the US has only two neighbors, both of which are highly dependent on it. Thanks to such a safe environment, the US enjoys enough room to maneuver that it can deploy its strategic focus on the international stage, especially in Asia.
Third, the US still lacks confidence despite residing in such a safe environment. The underlying reason is quite simple: it has drifted into a seemingly unavoidable decline. Although the US was a leading economy by the 1890s, its engagement in world affairs and growth into a world leader only began during WWI. Nevertheless, its growth into a world leader was almost free from major obstacles. Europe was mired in problems and needed American aid, and therefore invited the US to engage in world affairs. After WWII, the US became a world power but its supremacy was limited to the West. The end of the Cold War marked the apex of its supremacy but also the start of its decline.
US supremacy has previously gone unchallenged. However, “absolute power corrupts absolutely” – this maxim also applies to international politics. As a result, the US has started to commit a series of blunders. Its vulnerability to mistakes is caused by its status as a superpower rather than the subjective willpower of any leader. In both its domestic development and in foreign affairs, the US has run into tremendous trouble: in international affairs, it has suffered setbacks in both military campaigns and democracy-promotion; in domestic affairs, its confidence has been seriously dampened by the lasting financial and economic crises as well as the government’s inability to handle them. Another equally important problem is US politics: its two-party political system has hampered the ability to produce an effective government.
Although the US still remains a great power, it has suffered a decline in confidence. Without sufficient confidence, its strategies towards China are mostly passive: it always treats China as an opponent or even an enemy. This approach is most notable in it security measures, which can be categorized several ways. The first is to strengthen its traditional alliances such as those with Japan and South Korea. Instead of adjusting those alliances from the Cold War, it has found various excuses to reinforce them. In recent years, its alliances with Japan and South Korea have been bolstered due to the crisis in the DPRK and have become an integrated three-nation alliance. Moreover, recent contentions over the South China Sea have also prompted the US to bolster its cooperation with countries like Japan and Australia and strengthen its “Mini-NATO in Asia.” The US has sought every possible way to exploit its relations with China’s neighbors, even though its strategies sometimes seem to be nothing more than wishful thinking.
However, it is evident that the US approach has exacerbated insecurity in Asia rather than improved safety. Such approaches have aroused an unusual wariness from China, and forced the latter to respond, sometimes with vehemence. In turn, such responses will prompt the US to shift its strategy, resulting in an unending circular process: a typical security dilemma.
Zheng Yongnian is the Director of East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore