Shadow Government

China Is Overreaching -- Does the U.S. Have a Plan?

Dan Twining's excellent post-mortem on the Shangri-La security summit in Singapore accurately captured China's isolation in Asia on both security and values issues. There is more to the story though. The Shangri-La meeting came just a week after China hosted the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), a once sleepy gathering organized by Kazakhstan that Chinese President Xi Jinping took over this year in an effort to form a new continental security system to counter the United States and Japan's strengthening network of maritime democracies. In another over-reach, Beijing thought that Japan-South Korea tensions over history and growing Sino-Korean economic ties would provide an opening to enlist South Korea in that continental system and to pull Seoul away from the United States. 

In the lead up to CICA, Beijing pushed hard for all the participating countries to sign on to a joint statement that declared bilateral alliances obsolete in Asia and called for a new system of security that would be hailed by Xi Jinping in his keynote speech to the conference. U.S. allies Turkey and Israel signed on, but the Koreans held firm and the joint statement was watered down, though Xi did make his declaration in the keynote speech anyway. The Chinese also tried to get Korea to sign on to a new common front against Japan on history issues, but Seoul rebuffed Beijing again, explaining that these were bilateral problems with Japan and not a reason for Sino-ROK cooperation.

The extent to which Beijing's aggressiveness is pushing the region to the United States for security cooperation was evident in a recent poll we conducted at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) of foreign policy elites across Asia. In the survey we asked experts in 12 countries what future order they expected in Asia in a decade and a majority answered that it would be one led by the United States (as opposed to a Sino-centric system, balance of power, U.S.-China condominium, or East Asian Community). Outside of China, a majority of respondents also said they preferred a U.S.-led system. Koreans were among the most enthusiastic about retaining U.S.-leadership in the region. This was not surprising, given that a significant majority outside of China thought it was having a negative impact on regional security, despite enthusiasm about economic ties with China.

But is the United States up to this leadership? The survey showed enthusiasm for the "rebalance" (also known as "the pivot"), but real concern about whether it will be implemented. More troubling was the curious divergence between American foreign policy elites and their Asian counterparts on democracy and human rights. When we did this survey five years ago, there was a stunning consensus outside of China on the need for Asia's future order to be built on free and fair elections, human rights and rule of law (caveated by Indians and Indonesians on the need for non-interference in internal affairs).

The support for democratic norms increased even more this time, but no thanks to the Americans. The percentage of American foreign policy elites who said it was important to promote free and fair elections in Asia dropped from 86 percent to 66 percent, and those arguing human rights mattered to regional order dropped from 94 percent to 72 percent. This is still a majority, but the Americans were dead last on promoting human rights and women's empowerment -- behind even the Chinese respondents.

Why, as Asians embrace these democratic norms, are American foreign policy elites moving away from them as a core element of our foreign policy? Part of the reason has to be the setbacks in the Middle East and perhaps even frustration with our own democratic process, but I suspect one big reason is the trickle-down effect of the Obama administration's faux realism. My guess is that a content analysis of speeches and public national security documents relating to Asia (and for that matter, the world) would find that the Obama administration references democracy and human rights less than any President since Nixon -- and possibly since Warren G. Harding (Nixon, after all, gave a full-throated endorsement of democracy in Asia even in his famous 1972 Shanghai Communiqué). Oh well. At least we have something to work with, as Dan Twining points out.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Asia’s Future in the Balance at Shangri-La

"We don't think China wants to rule the world. China just wants to rule us." So said a senior Southeast Asian diplomat at last weekend's Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Over the course of the three-day security conference, one Asian official after another chafed at the prospect of his country succumbing to a militarized Chinese sphere of influence. Who can prevent it and preserve the peace of Asia? The answer lies across the Pacific. As one Asian official put it starkly, "China only cares about the U.S."

A Chinese delegation of star-studded generals and admirals did little to reassure their neighbors of China's peaceful rise. One felt a bit sorry for them: They were continuously challenged by representatives of nearly every Asian and Western nation over Chinese assertiveness and unwillingness to peacefully resolve disputes under international law.

But the Chinese felt no need to play defense. They found it more fruitful to go on the attack. According to the deputy chief of the People's Liberation Army general staff, the greatest danger to Asia-Pacific security comes not from China, the region's revisionist power, but from the United States and Japan -- the two nations that have done most to uphold the Asian status quo for seven decades.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered a speech well received by allies anxious for reassurance. He invoked America's formidable lead in military power and alliance partnerships in Asia. He outlined ongoing U.S. military exercises, naval ship visits, defense sales, and other activities that make America the guarantor of an open regional order that has produced more prosperity for more people than any other.

And he made this point: "We take no position on competing territorial claims. But we firmly oppose any nation's use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert those claims. We also oppose any effort by any nation to restrict overflight or freedom of navigation." These principles of peaceful dispute resolution and open global commons underpin the modern international system.

But from Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong's perspective, the American message was "a provocation targeting China." It was "full of hegemony, full of words of threat and intimidation." Indeed, rather than signaling the continuity of American strategy, Secretary Hagel was leading an effort to "usher destabilizing factors into the Asia-Pacific to stir up trouble."

Worse was what the leader of the Chinese delegation condemned as the "pre-coordinated" nature of the American and Japanese keynote addresses -- between close allies, no less! -- which only "encouraged each other in provoking and challenging China."

General Wang delivered some breaking news to the many Asian nations under military pressure from Beijing over territorial and maritime conflicts: "China has never initiated disputes over territorial sovereignty and the delimitation of maritime boundaries." No matter how many times he says this, it will still be untrue.

Moreover, "we know who is really assertive. Assertiveness has come from the joint actions of the United States and Japan, not China." But "proactive pacifism" is Japan's strategic goal under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- whose armed forces legally cannot even defend American allies under direct attack, much less threaten China's security.

Abe's remarks at the conference focused on Tokyo's commitment to "peace and prosperity in Asia, for evermore" - by promoting resolution of disputes, upholding freedom of the airspace and seas, strengthening regional institutions, and enhancing overseas development assistance. Chinese officials might improve their messaging by echoing these points instead of tearing them down.

Perhaps the Chinese delegation was unnerved by a more potent threat to China's position. "The United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged," Hagel declared. China has "a choice: to recommit to a stable regional order, or to walk away from that commitment and risk the peace and security that have benefitted millions of people throughout the Asia-Pacific, and billions around the world."

China's regime is much more fragile than those of the United States and Japan. Its economic miracle is a product of peace and access to international markets and capital. China has the most to lose from conflict that could end these conditions and overturn the compact its ruling party has made with its people: rapid economic growth without political rights. In making a bid for hegemony in Asia that could lead to war, China could lose everything, reversing the most remarkable rise in world history.

Indeed, when Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, standing alongside China's senior representative to the conference, oddly warned against "color revolutions" in Asia - where more people live under free institutions than anywhere else -- he only drew attention to the democracy deficit that afflicts both his own country and its giant neighbor, making them permanently insecure.

Perhaps this is why the Chinese delegation in Singapore felt so beleaguered. No matter how strong China gets, it will never enjoy full respect or international consent for its leadership as an autocracy. On this week's 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, China's rulers might consider the strategic case for political reform at home as a way of legitimizing China's leadership abroad. This would surely be more effective than the finger-wagging at Shangri-La.

ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images