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Foreign Policy

The Changing Regional Order in East Asia

Jan 04 , 2014
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Director of China Foundation for International Strategic Studies, Senior Adviser at Pangoal Institution

After the end of WWII, the Cold War order descended on East Asia. The arrangements envisioned by the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Proclamation had failed to materialize. 

The Cold War went through two phases in East Asia. The first phase was marked by confrontation between the US-led military alliances and the socialist bloc centered on the Sino-Soviet duo. The Korean War and Vietnam War erupted in the 1950s and 1960s. The main preoccupation of the United States was with Europe; in Asia, it sought primarily to contain and encircle China. Following the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1960s, Washington and Moscow remained at loggerheads; China pitted itself against both the United States and the Soviet Union. 

In the second phase, China and the United States formed a de facto alliance to counter the growing Soviet threat. US military alliances with Japan stopped targeting China. However, the regional order in East Asia continued to be dominated by major-power rivalry. The 1979 border conflict between China and Vietnam, for example, must be seen against the backdrop of Sino-Soviet antagonism. The Cold War finally ground to an end in East Asia in the late 1980s, marked by the US-Soviet détente, the improvement of Sino-Soviet relations and the subsequent thaw in China’s ties with ASEAN countries. 

The collapse of the bi-polar Cold War order changed East Asia profoundly: the major powers were no longer in a full-blown confrontation; countries were increasingly interdependent with each other and generally improved and developed their mutual relationships; multilateral mechanisms underwent fast development. Despite incessant hotspots (some even triggering security crises), East Asia as a whole has maintained peace and registered the fastest economic growth in the world. 

So, some risks and instability notwithstanding, a security order featuring pluralism, cooperation and coexistence has emerged in East Asia. This new order has four key components: 

First, there has been deepening economic interdependence between countries in the region, reflected in various forms of bilateral partnerships (including strategic partnerships). Countries have generally put into place multi-faceted and multi-tiered bilateral dialogue mechanisms and are pursuing active cooperation in diverse fields. 

Second, there has been major-power coordination and cooperation. Admittedly no formal mechanism of major-power coordination has emerged, and major-power relations are still bumpy, yet a balance has been established between the major players that has never before been seen in history. They now both cooperate with and guard against each other, draw on and check each other. Their shared interests and preference for cooperation trump their differences and frictions. They all desire stable relationships with the other major powers. 

Third, there are increasing numbers of multilateral dialogue mechanisms, e.g. ASEAN-centered 10+1, 10+3, 10+6, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and East Asia Summit (EAS). These mechanisms are uniquely East Asian: they suit the unbalanced political and economic development in the region as well as the difference in national cultures and values; they operate on the basis of consensus and a new approach to security emphasizing comprehensive, cooperative and shared security. They have also been a positive influence on regional peace, stability and development. In addition, the Six-Party Talks have made some headway towards resolving the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, although it has largely stalled since 2009. 

Fourth, the US has established military alliances with Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, etc. and forward deployed its military. These alliances are in transition but, as a relic of the Cold War, they are the most contentious aspect of the regional security architecture. Some countries see the US military presence as reassuring, but China and some others have serious concerns and apprehensions. 

Looking ahead, it is in the interest of East Asian countries to shape the regional order in the direction of peace and development. 

First, East Asian countries should deepen their mutual dependence, strengthen bilateral economic and security cooperation and partnerships, and strive to build an East Asian economic community on the basis of the existing free trade areas (FTAs). A crucial first step is to establish the China-Japan-ROK FTA. At the same time, a vigorous effort should be made to advance the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). 

Second, East Asian countries should continue to improve the ASEAN-centered regional security mechanisms and other mechanisms featuring sovereign equality, sharing of leadership power and responsibilities, and coordinated action. The East Asian security architecture is different in form and substance from OSCE or NATO, but it can maintain a strong relevance. In the period to come, medium and small countries in the region should join together to play a role and avert manipulation by major powers. They should also focus on actively developing confidence-building measures (CBMs), trust-building measures (TBMs) and crisis management mechanisms, and strengthen all manners of security cooperation, particularly in non-traditional areas. 

Third, major-power relations in East Asia should emulate the new model of “no confrontation and conflict, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” China sees the construction of such a relationship with the United States as the most important; it will also appreciate the urgency of building a similar relationship with Japan. A new model of relations should also be established between China and Russia, the United States and Russia, and Russia and Japan, which will lead to more peace and development. Cooperative and relatively stable and balanced relations between all the major powers in the region, if established, will be a strong safeguard of peace and stability in East Asia. 

Fourth, the US alliances will continue to exist for a long time to come, but they need to adapt to the evolving situation in East Asia and contribute to regional peace and development. They need to undergo a faster transition, stop seeing other countries as potential adversaries, and completely abandon the Cold War mentality. They must also shift the strategy from offense to defense, focus on non-traditional security threats, and pursue dialogue and cooperation with non-allies. To facilitate this, it will be necessary to initiate a series of trilateral security dialogues (e.g. China-US-ROK, China-US-DPRK, China-US-Japan, China-Russia-US). Such three-way dialogues will pave the way for better communication between allies and non-allies. The opposite approach would be to combine the various bilateral alliances to create the East Asian or Asia-Pacific version of NATO, shifting the focus from defense to offense and actively interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. 

Lastly, the relevant countries should work to resolve the hotspot issues such as the Korean nuclear issue and territorial and maritime disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. The mainland of China and Taiwan need to make strong, autonomous efforts to achieve reunification, as do the two sides of the Korean Peninsula. Only a peaceful settlement of these issues through dialogues, can help East Asia secure the peace and development it has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War and at the same time, consolidate and develop its nebulous security order featuring pluralism, cooperation and coexistence.

Zhang Tuosheng is Director of Research and Senior Fellow at the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies.

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