The Asia-Pacific region is very dynamic and fast changing, not only in economic terms but also in security terms. Three recent developments will have profound implication on regional security.
The first development is the continued growth of China, and the accompanying fast paced defense modernization, which has in one way or another changed the regional military power balance. After surpassing Japan in 2010 and becoming the second largest economy, China’s GDP increased to 7.3 trillion USD last year and is expected to reach 7.9 trillion this year, nearly half the volume of the US. Chinese defense budget increased to $105 billion this year, the largest in Asia and the second largest in the world, although it makes up only one sixths that of the US. China's development of new weapon systems, acquisition of new military capabilities, and development of new doctrines have all been, in recent years, the focus of media coverage, academic research and policy debate.
The second development is the recent US “rebalance toward Asia”. The rebalance is driven by three factors: the rise of Asia-Pacific region as the main driver for global economic growth calls for more US engagement to help economic recovery and future prosperity; the end of the two hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan provides for the US opportunities to redirect resources, redeploy troops and reorient policies; and China’s defense modernization have changed the balance of power in an area where the US has dominated for decades. Some US allies and partners have requested more robust US presence to offset China’s rise. Although the rebalance has created a fanfare and caused genuine concern in China, the declared measures are piecemeal and will take years to achieve.
The third new development relates to maritime security issues in East Asia. Disputes over sea territory and maritime rights are not something new, but disputing parties in the past had been able to put them aside, in order to keep bilateral relations friendly and regional situation peaceful. However, with expanding demand for energy and resources, the advance of technology to explore and employ undersea resources, and the extension of interest sphere, maritime disputes have increased in recent years. They occur not only between China and its neighbors, but also between and among China’s neighbors. For example, the disputes over 5 islands and maritime demarcation between the two Koreas in the Yellow Sea, over Dokdo/Takeshima between Japan and South Korea, over the northern territories between Japan and Russia and over islands in the South China Sea between and among ASEAN states. However, it is China who finds itself facing the most daunting challenges from its maritime neighbors.
The three developments interact to exert an impact on regional security. China’s continued growth and defense modernization cause concerns from the US as well as China’s neighbors. They question the sincerity of China’s peaceful rise and the intention of China's defense modernization. China is accused of lack of transparency in military affairs, of selectively developing asymmetric capabilities to offset US military advantages, and most recently, of possessing AD/A2 capabilities to counter US force projection effort.
Meanwhile, US rebalance toward Asia is perceived as part of the hedging or even containing effort against China. Even though the rebalance has political, diplomatic, economic and military elements, measures in the last category received most attention. For example, the US will not reduce defense investment in the Asia-Pacific region even though it is going to cut its defense budget by 500 billion USD. The forward regional presence would be reinforced by rotationally deployed marines to Darwin, Australia, on board ships and even to the Philippines, and by up to 4 littoral combat ships near Singapore. The 9000 marines withdrawn from Okinawa will be redeployed to Guam, Hawaii or Alaska, and up to 60% of US naval vessels will be in the Pacific by 2020. The US is planning with its allies to set up a BMD system in East Asia. And the strengthening of alliance ties and development of partnerships are scrutinized in China for future security implications. Thus, China’s rise (together with military modernization) and US rebalance seem to place both in a “security dilemma”, in which action by one to increase security reduces the other’s sense of security. And the interactive process is leading to deeper strategic distrust.
The security dilemma between the US and China complicates the security choices of others in the region. It is particularly true with the ASEAN states, some of which have clashed with China over maritime issues. When the US jumped into the South China Sea in 2010 and took the side with the ASEAN claimants by reiterating alliance obligations, forming new partnerships, organizing joint military exercises, and issuing statements (the most recent one is released on the third of August.), these countries are happy that the superpower is back to deter China. At the same time they are worried that the good relations, especially the economic ties from which both China and the ASEAN states have benefited, would be victimized. The worst choice for Asian-Pacific states in general, and ASEAN states in particular, is to be forced to choose between the US and China.
In short, if the three new developments interact negatively, they could pose challenges to Asia-Pacific security. China, the US and all other regional players, have to find more common ground to cooperate in keeping shared interests and facing common challenges. It is especially important for the militaries of China and the US, and other militaries in the region, to devote more efforts to engage each other, to focus on cooperating in things they can do together, and to cultivate trust that will lead to more spontaneous security cooperation in the region.
Major General Yao Yunzhu is Director of Center on China-American Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science