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Challenges of Regional Peace and Stability in East Asia

Christopher Ford

Good morning, everyone.  Let me start by expressing my thanks to the Congressional Taiwan Caucus for inviting us here.   In preparing my remarks for today, I thought that it might be useful to say something about the territorial waters disputes that have been so much in the news recently between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its neighbors with respect to the South China Sea (SCS) and the East China Sea (ECS), because thinking about these problems provides an interesting window into broader questions of regional peace, security, and stability.

If we are to have any chance of managing these problems and by “we” I mean not only the United States, of course, but also the regional players most directly involved it is important to understand the factors which have contributed to these current crises.  After all, these disputes aren’t really “new.“  Why have tensions become so acute in the last few years, and especially in the last three?  Several things, I think, have contributed.

First, there is an aspect of these debates that is simply about resources.  This is probably clearest in the SCS, through estimates of its undersea oil and gas reserves have varied hugely.  Natural gas reserves in the SCS are also quite important and indeed, according to the Energy Information Agency, quite huge.  Another issue in both of these areas of disputed water is fish, especially in an era when global fisheries stocks are declining and the growing populations of the region depend greatly upon fish both for food and as an export commodity.


The actual or potential presence of such resources leads to a second factor, which to borrow from European imperial history is a kind of scramble for Africa” phenomenon: once someone starts trying to turn their longstanding notional claims to the area into concrete reality, others naturally tend to feel compelled to assert themselves as well.

A third factor that is clearly important in the developing disputes in the region is simply the PRC’s growing economic weight, international clout, and military power.  Simply put, with such newfound muscularity, it is easier for China to contemplate self-assertion today than ever before.

Fourth, it is commonly said that one factor in the current problems is China’s leadership succession, for indeed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does face a once-in-a-decade leadership transition at the end of this year when Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are expected to turn over the reins of power to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang at the 18th CCP Party Congress in November.  The imminence of such transitions seems often to lead to paralysis in many parts of the Chinese Party-State apparatus as suggested by this morning’s New York Times with respect to economic reform, for instance but posturing against purported foreign threats and supposed affronts to China’s dignity and “sovereignty” is not one of those areas.  To the contrary, perhaps, this may be a perfect time for nationalist poses against weaker neighbors.

These four factors represent the conventional wisdom about the causes of the recent inflammation of tensions in the SCS and ECS, and I think there is much truth in analyses that emphasize such factors.  I’d like, however, to suggest an additional factor one that also has to do with internal PRC political dynamics, but which isn’t likely to go away after the 18th Party Congress in November 2012.  For the last two decades, the CCP regime has invested political capital in cultivating anti-foreign nationalism as a basis for the Party’s legitimacy narrative, and this nationalism has indeed become a potent force.  As another part of its effort to develop a post-Marxist ideology to sustain one-party rule, the Chinese Party-State has also been developing a discourse of quasi-Confucian domestic politics and international relations doctrine.

Together, these two themes of the modern CCP legitimacy narrative call it Confucio-nationalism, if you will have an impact upon Chinese policy.  They have helped make China more moralistically confrontational in its foreign relations and more inclined to press its neighbors into patterns of deference to Beijing than at any other point since the era of “reform and opening” took off under Deng Xiaoping more than three decades ago.  This just isn’t a pre-Party-Congress pose, in other words, but in fact an important part of the “new normal” in 21st-Century China.  Though adopted, in the first instance, for domestic political reasons tied to the Party’s desire to cling to power, these themes essentially demand confrontational foreign postures and efforts to nudge East Asia, at the very least, into more Sinocentric forms of interstate order.  Significantly, moreover, Beijing today feels freer to act upon such thinking than at any time since the death of Mao Zedong.

Let me explain a little more about what I think has happened.  After Tiananmen, Deng is said to have articulated a pithy phrase about the importance of “biding one’s time and hiding one’s capabilities,” which encapsulated important conclusions about China’s interest in strategic caution.  This did not amount to any relinquishment of the dream of national “rejuvenation” and “return” that so many Chinese have shared since the Qing Dynasty was first humbled by Western power in the 19th Century, but it was a clear policy of tactical postponement of the kind of self-assertion implied by the country’s destined “return.“  China, it was said, needed breathing space in which to build up its strength, and to this end should carefully keep a low profile and adopt a relatively non-provocative posture.

This approach of Dengist “time-biding,” which some scholars have referred to as “Taoist Nationalism,” became the foundation of China’s foreign relations for many years.  As China’s strength and confidence have grown in the international arena, however and as the CCP has invested more and more political capital in Sino-nationalist legitimacy strategies that encourage both revanchiste posturing against an outside world felt to have “humiliated” China and quasi-Confucian notions of the desirability of a Sinocentric global order such “time-biding” has come increasingly under pressure.

A dynamic that I think has been particularly important recently, however and which is probably a major factor behind China’s recent moves to escalate tensions in the SCS and the ECS is Beijing’s perception that America is enfeebled, weary of foreign commitments, and in a precipitous decline.

Why is that?  “Taoist Nationalism” based its strategic logic on two main assumptions.  First, it was felt that in order to gain the strength necessary to effect its “return” to glory, China needed to learn modernity from the West, particularly from the iconic modern state and the most powerful of the Western polities: the United States.  This required congenial engagement in which China could engage in export-driven growth, acquire technology and modern know-how from the West, and have the breathing space necessary for its development.  Second, it was recognized that the outside world and the Americans in particular were still powerful enough to be able to impose huge costs on the PRC if sufficiently threatened or provoked.   Accordingly, great care should be taken not to provoke them, at least until China was strong enough to handle the consequences.  The strategic caution of “Taoist Nationalism” thus rested upon the presumed great benefits of friendly engagement and high costs of confrontation.

To my eye, however, this balance was destabilized by the U.S. financial crisis and our present indebtedness and ineffective political leadership.  In Chinese eyes, I think we no longer appear an attractive teacher or model of modernity, which reduces the “benefits of friendly engagement” side of the equation.  Our continuing politico-economic woes have also encouraged Beijing to think we are on a steep downhill slope in what Chinese strategists call “comprehensive national power,” thus also reducing the “costs of confrontation” element.

As a result, it is presumably harder than ever in Beijing to argue for a continuation of “Taoist Nationalism,” and more confrontational sentiments are gradually coming to predominate.  Even as the CCP regime has staked its political legitimacy on anti-foreign nationalism and increasingly Sinocentric pretensions of global “return,” in other words, the confrontational postures encouraged by such thinking have seemed more feasible than ever.

To my eye, there is little chance in the near term of conclusively resolving the disputes in question.  One could argue all day about the relative legal merits of the various competing claims and lots of people do but whatever their merits, I think it is unlikely that we’ll see the issues “resolved” any time soon.  It is thus the challenge of diplomacy and statesmanship to defer the issue peacefully and manage the situation so as to keep things from getting out of hand.  Near-term crisis management will be important in this work, as will trying to persuade all participants to avoid provocative actions, and doing everything possible to reaffirm freedom-of-navigation rights in the region.  In order to reduce the sting of resource competition in the SCS, and indeed to give parties some incentive to cooperate with each other, some observers have also suggested that a moratorium on oil and gas drilling should be imposed until all agree upon a formula for resource-sharing.

Much discussion in the SCS, at least, has referred to the importance of establishing a good “code of conduct” for regional interactions.  I don’t disagree, but so far, this hasn’t amounted to much and what preliminary agreement has already materialized clearly hasn’t restrained anybody.  I think the problem lies deeper than simply a lack of clarity about how one shouldapproach interactions; the real problem seems to have more to do with whether parties wantto interact peaceably.

Fundamentally, most current proposals for managing these problems fail to address one of the key factors that I believe is contributing to these problems: the destabilizing effect of China’s growth combined with its increasing willingness to take confrontationally self-assertive positions vis-à-vis its neighbors.  The problem with Chinese behavior goes beyond simply taking positions playing to nationalist sentiments prior to the 18th Party Congress.  The deeper difficulty is due to the Party-State’s adoption of legitimacy narratives that encourage and to some extent require foreign affairs positions that are increasingly confrontational.

If what I’ve suggested about the internal debate between low-profile strategic caution and more self-assertively confrontation is true, however, it is possible that we can still influence China’s decision-making for the better even if they do continue to perceive us as being in decline.  As noted, strategic caution is losing ground in Beijing because China feels it now has less to gain from congenial engagement and less to lose from confrontation.

But it remains within the power of the United States and its regional friends to re-ignite that internal Chinese debate over Dengist “time-biding” by working together to highlight and toincrease  the potential costs and risks that confrontational approaches present for China and its great project of global “return.”  “Time-biding” aims to build up China’s strength until it is more ready to handle the consequences of confrontation, but by working to maximize those potential consequences in the near term we can give China additional reason to remain cautious and non-provocative for some while longer.

No matter how hard we try and no matter how much outreach we do, we probably lack the power to make Chinese leaders like us and trust us, not least because the CCP’s modern legitimacy narrative essentially requires us to be depicted and treated as an international foil and threat-figure.  If we work together with our friends and use our available resources prudently, however, we can probably persuade Beijing that there is still reason to remainstrategically cautious.

This suggests that our agenda should be focused upon alliance reinforcement, the cultivation of deeper and more cooperative political, economic, and military relationships around China’s periphery, the development of approaches to regional affairs which facilitate coordination and collective action by regional states vis-à-vis the PRC, and robust and sustainable military planning and operational postures that underscore the importance to China that regional disputes are approached only through peaceful negotiation and that conflict not break out at any level.

These things, I should stress, would definitely not seem “friendly” to Beijing, as indeed the current so-called “pivot” to Asia has not.  Ironically, however, it may be through such “unfriendliness” that we have the greatest odds of eliciting cooperative Chinese behavior.  This may be a counter-intuitive conclusion, but I think it follows.

(To be sure, it will also be our challenge to ensure that the support and reassurance given to friends in the region concerned about China’s rise and its taste for regional bullying does not encourage provocative actions by these friends.  It would do little good to reinforce cautionin Beijing only to see a tense regional standoff burst into flame because one of China’sneighbors discovers a taste for incautiousness.  Everyone will need to show caution and perspicacity.)

Through such a forward-leaning competitive strategy, however, I hope that we can help blunt China’s taste for regional confrontation and nudge it toward more cooperative patterns of behavior, at least for a while longer.  The challenge will then be to sustain the things which accomplished this, foremost among them a forward-leaning and deeply engaged diplomatic, politico-military, and economic strategy that seeks to support and sustain the open political order there for another generation.

Such work will require ongoing and deeper involvement with and cultivation of regional friends especially regional democracies and those willing to move more toward democracy, for it is cooperation among them that Beijing particularly fears and indeed all who share an interest in preventing the region from falling under the sway of any regional hegemon.  It will require not just a showy “pivot” of diplomatic attention, but also corresponding shifts of emphasis in the provision of resources and commitment over time.  And it will require clarity of mind in developing a competitive strategy not just individually but collectively  that supports peace, stability, and preservation of the open political and economic order that has brought such extraordinary benefits to everyone in the Pacific Rim (including the PRC) for many years.  This won’t always be easy work, but it is essential.

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