US, China react to a shifting balance of power in East Asia

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Chinese military officials have made very public “frank” statements regarding U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit to China. Vice Chairman of the Chinese Military Commission Fan Changlong said in an April 8 press conference with Hagel that he had carefully listened to the secretary’s comments abroad and that he was “dissatisfied” with Hagel’s remarks regarding Beijing’s activities in East Asia. Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan emphasized China’s sovereignty over disputed islands in the East and South China seas, saying that China would not give up its claims or tolerate any infringement on its territory. The message to Hagel was intended to reflect China’s confidence in its abilities and to reiterate that the relative balance of military power in the region is changing. In other words, the United States should stop trying to prevent China’s emergence as a regional power and adjust its posture and policies to the changing reality of the region.

There is indeed a change underway in the relative balance of power in East Asia. China’s naval and air forces may not be able to truly rival their US counterparts, but in the East and South China seas their capabilities are expanding, and this necessarily has begun to erode the existing power structure. During his visits throughout the region prior to his stop in China, Hagel highlighted Chinese actions as potentially destabilizing and suggested that China’s aggressive attempts to alter the status quo are undermining stability and security in East Asia.

In his speech to China’s National Defense University, Hagel cautioned, “As the [People’s Liberation Army] modernizes its capabilities and expands its presence in Asia and beyond, American and Chinese forces will be drawn into proximity, increasing the risk of an incident, accident or miscalculation.” This is the risk that comes with a change in the status quo. Changes in the number of ships and aircraft, as well as the frequency of their missions and the scope of their activities, will necessarily bring them into contact more frequently with the ships and planes of surrounding nations and of the United States.

Both the Chinese and Hagel presented a preferred solution to avoid the risk of confrontation: greater engagement and cooperation. The United States has already invited China to attend the biennial RIMPAC regional maritime exercises, and the Chinese gave Hagel a tour of the Liaoning aircraft carrier. That the Chinese felt confident enough to hold a dialogue with Hagel that they termed “frank” (a diplomatic term for dropping the niceties and getting down to the more serious issues) suggests that Beijing may be more serious than it has been in the past about more regularly engaging with the US military.


Previous attempts to create more frequent exchanges—particularly at the lower levels, where meetings are in many ways more important than those at the highest level— have often been undermined by Beijing which, believing it important to make a political statement, would cut off ties whenever the United States took actions China considered to be hostile, such as selling military equipment to Taiwan. Beijing is well aware that the United States will continue such sales, and Washington is always cautious about just how much it chooses to sell to Taiwan, so China’s actions have done little to deter the United States and have only served to weaken the two sides’ abilities to reach a common understanding of one another.

This understanding is important for both sides if they are to avoid accidental conflict. As Hagel noted, the risk of an accident is growing as the regional status quo is irrevocably altered. Without at least a common understanding of the rules of engagement, standard procedures and the ways the two militaries view their roles and one another, accidents could have deadly consequences. In 2001, the United States and China were locked in a tense standoff after a US electronic intelligence aircraft and a Chinese interceptor collided. More than a dozen years later, the two sides still have not reached a common understanding on just how close they may fly to one another, how close their ships and submarines may shadow one another or how they perceive and react to a deviation from the norms. These are the sorts of issues that are more often resolved at lower levels of engagement.

The United States and the Soviet Union took years to come to these understandings, but when they were reached they enabled Washington and Moscow, even at the height of the Cold War, to prevent accidents from escalating and in many cases avoided them entirely. Washington and Beijing continue to emphasize that their relationship is not at all comparable to that of the United States and the Soviet Union, highlighting in particular the strong economic relationship between the United States and China. Focusing on the differences between US-Chinese and US-Soviet relations has perhaps left too much of the military question out of the core of dialogue and in the hands of pundits on either side.

The military status quo is shifting in Asia. China’s regional presence today is far different than it was two or three decades ago. By default this means that there has been at least a relative decline in Washington’s power in the region. But the United States is not the only other country active in Asia. Changes in the military capacity of Japan, a US ally, also alter the relative balance of American power, as do similar shifts in Indonesia, Vietnam and South Korea. That adjustments will occur is not debatable. What is debatable is how Washington and Beijing will adjust to these changes, and whether they can move from a position of being largely informed by perception to one informed by greater interaction, if not direct cooperation. Both sides raised this possibility and desire on Hagel’s most recent visit, but they also remain cognizant of the differences in their views on territoriality and “responsible” behavior—differences that, at least for now, remain unbridgeable.

Republishing by The Manila Times of this Geopolitical Diary is with the express permission of STRATFOR.

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