Debate: 2010 and beyond

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This year has been eventful. What does this year mean for China's regional security and situation in Asia? Two research scholars with a think tank and a strategy expert present their views.

Zhang Jie and Zhong Feiteng: Caution the catchword for China

A series of events have taken place around China this year, which may have a far-reaching impact on its security. Four factors have changed China's security environment, and it should tighten its regional security management on five fronts.

The first change is related to the United States. The US remains the bellwether with its "flying geese" security structure. The US-Japan and US-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliances make up the second section of the US security chain, the relationship between the US and Australia, Thailand and the Philippines form the third, and the ties between the US and Vietnam, Indonesia and India make up the fourth.

The US emphasizes the importance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a pivot of multilateral body in the region and undertakes to improve India's status in the international community, and its fourth security segment will help it to shape (or reshape) the regional order.

Contrary to American politicians' claim, Washington's participation and leadership in various institutions across Asia Pacific are aimed at maximizing US interests. The US changed its Asia strategy in a hurry to return to Asia, complicating China's relations with its neighbors further and weakening their political mutual trust.

Second, the most vulnerable link in China's security environment lies in Northeast Asia. The situation on the Korean Peninsula serves as a barometer of the regional security situation. This year has witnessed the sinking of the ROK's corvette Cheonan and exchange of fire near the western maritime border of the Korean Peninsula, creating the most serious crisis since the armistice ended the 1950-53 Korean War. The US jumped into the fray immediately after the exchange of fire and has held several military drills with the ROK and Japan in the waters around the Korean Peninsula. The drills, unprecedented in scale and intensity, have given rise to the US-Japan-ROK military alliance.

Since China has always believed that only equal dialogue can ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and resolve the Korean issue, it proposed to hold emergency consultations among the heads of delegation to the Six-Party Talks. But it was ignored by the US, the ROK and Japan. The continuing tension on the Korean Peninsula and Washington's strategic squeezing of Beijing have created challenges for China.

Third, maritime security has become an important concern for China. And since China will not give up its core interests in the disputes in the South China Sea or over the Diaoyu Islands even if the disputing sides get close to the US, Beijing faces a deteriorating maritime security environment.

Fourth, the rise of non-traditional security problems is affecting China's relations with its neighbors. This year has seen the rise of non-traditional security problems, such as floods and the use of water from cross-border rivers, which pose a challenge for China's public diplomacy.

The expansion of common interests of China and its neighbors face a hurdle, too, because of the US' involvement, and it is unlikely that China will get peace in return for compromising its economic interests. Since in all likelihood the future order in Asia Pacific depends on a contest between Beijing and Washington, China should readjust its diplomatic strategy with its neighbors on five fronts.

First, China should use economic means in its diplomacy prudently, just as it has done this year to maintain the peaceful environment around it. But it has to conduct more strategic research on the international market and further evaluate its economic strategic capability. Theoretically though, the effectiveness of its economic policies depends on the sensitivity and vulnerability of the other side.

Second, the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP) will be a rival to the 10+3 (ASEAN plus China, Japan and the ROK) mechanism and may render the latter almost useless. It is obvious that the US will participate in regional trade more energetically to invigorate its economy. Since Washington enjoys overwhelming superiority in TPP, it will promote the partnership agreement for its own economic and security interests.

Besides, Japan and the ROK are likely to join the TPP, so the US to some extent will try to undermine the prospects of the ongoing negotiations among Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul to establish a triangular free trade area. And it is clear that the TPP also poses a challenge to the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area.

Third, India has improved its trade relations with the US and is trying to forge closer ties with Japan. These developments can affect China's economic competitiveness in the region and its influence over ASEAN. India's fast economic recovery, increasing military strength and relatively favorable international image could also strengthen the voices among Indians that support a tough line against China, and make it difficult for the Indian government to maintain sound Sino-Indian relations. Though India is likely to develop its relations with Japan, Vietnam and other countries in the next decade, its ties with the US will still be the top priority for India. So China has to pay special attention to India's diplomacy in 2011.

Fourth, the maneuverable space between China and the US is narrowing, and strategic frictions are becoming unavoidable. The US' claim that it is navigating the South China Sea, strengthening security cooperation with Vietnam and building a trilateral alliance with the ROK and Japan over the Korean Peninsula issue in its national interests shows Washington's strategic anxiety over Beijing is increasing. The US will never allow China to challenge its leadership, and will try to "contain" China's rise.

In other words, the US will interfere in the regional order and use China's frictions and disputes to its advantage. Hence, China has to deal with the US with maturity and utter calm.

Fifth, while formulating its strategy with neighboring countries, China should use the exchanges between its frontier provinces and neighboring countries to set up an institution to deal with the transborder security situation. And China's domestic departments, local authorities and central government should expedite coordination to help speed up this process.

As China grows in strength its actions and words could evoke unwarranted response from its neighbors. It is important that China understands its neighbors' mindset and increases its coordination and cooperation with them. It should be confident but moderate, proactive but guarded in its actions and words.

The authors are research scholars with the Institute of the Asia-Pacific Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and members of the team that drafted the report "2010: Regional Security Change and China's Strategic Response". This is an excerpt from the report made by the institute

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