The last few weeks have confirmed the wisdom of U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s remarks at the June 5th Shangri-La Defense Dialogue in Singapore. In the keynote address, Carter called for greater multilateral cooperation among countries to address common security problems, and laid out a path towards that end by calling for the transformation of existing structures into a more comprehensive network.
Since then, we have seen a listless session of the Sino-American Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in Beijing, several near-term military collisions between Chinese and U.S. aircraft and ships in disputed waters, and major differences between China and Southeast Asian states at the China-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers’ meeting.
In principle, China and other states have called for the same broad, inclusive cooperation. Since 2010, however, Beijing has become more assertive about pressing its territorial claims. Many of the ASEAN member states have responded by seeking to draw in outside powers to balance China. The result has been a dynamic of reciprocal escalation and militarization.
That ASEAN states turn to the United States as their external balancer is understandable. India and Japan are struggling to match China’s rising power, while the EU is too distant and Russians have suppressed qualms about Chinese ambitions in the hopes that Beijing will focus on other directions.
Despite its achievements, the Obama administration’s Asian Pivot has been unable to find a place for China. U.S. and Chinese officials remain torn between viewing each other as partners or as problems. The last few years have seen mistrust and concern outweigh hope and opportunity due to acute differences over cyber security, economic policies, and especially the territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. In the latter case, whereas China prioritizes national sovereignty, the United States is more concerned about regional stability.
The United States is not a party to these disputes, but some of the claimants are U.S. allies. Furthermore, Americans worry that a military conflict anywhere in the region could undermine peace and prosperity everywhere. A clash of arms, whether through deliberate action or inadvertent escalation, would harm the prosperity of China as well as other counties whose maritime commerce, valued at $5 billion annually, traverses these waters. The contested governance of the region has already facilitated illegal fishing and lax environmental standards. A major use of force would scare away shippers or require them to pay substantially higher insurance fees.
U.S. officials have tried to eschew a confrontation with China over territorial disputes or other areas, such as trade and cybersecurity, where Chinese behavior risks undermining the global rules that have brought peace and prosperity to the region for decades. Instead of publicly siding with any party to Asian sovereignty disputes, U.S. officials have emphasized defense of general principles such as open access to global commons, binding rules and codes of conduct, respect for international law, peaceful resolution of disputes, and multilateral dispute and cooperation mechanisms. They have also termed Beijing’s approach to these sovereignty disputes an important test of China’s rise, of whether Beijing will employ its growing capabilities in peaceful or disruptive ways.
Carter followed this line in his keynote speech in Singapore, where he called on Asian-Pacific countries to “ensure a positive and principled future…one where everybody, and every nation, continues to have the opportunity and freedom to rise, to prosper, and to win.” Although Carter noted that the Asia-Pacific region lacks the strong multilateral security institutions seen in Europe, he argued that Asian militaries were cooperating “more effectively and efficiently than ever before” to build a “Asia-Pacific security network” that “weaves everyone’s relationships together – bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral – to help all of us do more, over greater distances, with greater economy of effort.”
Although the term “principled security network” was new, the content of Carter’s speech was not. Carter used similar language in several speeches earlier this year. Moreover, previous U.S. Defense Secretaries had made comparable comments at earlier Shangri-La Dialogues. In 2010, Robert Gates termed the South China Sea “vital [not only] to those directly bordering it, but [also] to all nations with economic and security interests in Asia.” In 2012, Leon Panetta called for an Asian security architecture based on a “rules-based order.” In 2014, Chuck Hagel challenged what he saw as China’s “destabilizing unilateral actions” in the Scarborough Shoal and in declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. Like Carter, the previous Defense Secretaries reviewed the powerful military forces and alignments that the United States enjoyed in the region and insisted that the U.S. military presence in East Asia, including its freedom of navigation operations, would continue indefinitely.
This year, as in the past, a number of other national defense ministers attending the Shangri-La Dialogue echoed these points. The Chinese government has listed dozens of countries as backing its position that these territorial disputes should be resolved only through bilateral negotiations between each party, which gives China advantages over its weaker partners. However, other sources find less support for China and more for involving other countries and international structures, such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which will soon rule on the Philippines challenge to the legality of China’s “nine-dotted line” claim.
In his speech at the Shanri-La meeting, Admiral Sun Jianguo, Deputy Chief of the PLA’s Joint Staff Department, detailed how China’s new security outlook favors mutual understanding through dialogue and inclusive win-win security cooperation. The Admiral said the overall situation in the South China Sea remained stable, with unimpeded freedom of navigation, though he warned against strengthening military alliances in the region.
Yet, Sun dismissed Carter’s concern that China risked “self-isolation” through its assertive stance in the South China Sea and in other domains. The Admiral insisted that China will not be isolated, and that those entrapped in “Cold War thinking” further provoke and use international law selectively for unilateral advantage, causing other problems. Sun pointedly warned that, “We do not make trouble, but we have no fear of trouble.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry and Chinese media commentators also treated Carter’s speech with skepticism. Chinese policymakers may perceive the last few months of the Obama administration as an opportunity for further unilateral gains, such as declaring an ADIZ in the South China Sea or militarizing more islands, but other countries would likely respond with more international lawsuits against China and by seeking stronger defense ties with the United States. A better alternative would be for China and other countries to seize Carter’s offer and build a cooperative multilateral network for mutual gain.