Does China plan an East Asian security structure?

By Tim Collard
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, February 23, 2017
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The advent of a new and unpredictable American administration presents a clear new security challenge to China in a region not lacking in security challenges. On the one hand, President Trump is casting doubt on the U.S.'s future commitment to financing the alliance structure built up in the region during the Cold War; on the other, he sees fit to express quite aggressive opposition to the Chinese position on the South China Sea issue.

It is, of course, likely that the new President's bark will be proved to be nowhere near as bad as his bite; he knows as yet little of China, and - once better informed by his advisers - he has hurried to reassure the Chinese government that he was mistaken in casting doubt on the U.S.'s commitment to the one-China principle.

But the new administration's lack of clarity regarding the region's security issues, coupled with the decision already made to withdraw the U.S. from the proposed regional trading structure in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will no doubt have encouraged the Chinese leadership that China had better make her own arrangements for ensuring regional security, rather than relying on the uncertainties of U.S. policy.

It cannot, of course, be expected that China would aim at formal security structures, on the pattern of that established by the Soviet Union in the Cold War days. In effect, the Soviet Union established the "Warsaw Pact" a belt of buffer states as an extra reinforcement to its security. Its importance was in keeping NATO forces a long way from the core Soviet territory, and also to ensure that a number of ostensibly independent states could be relied upon to support the USSR in international disputes. There is no prospect of this pattern being repeated in East Asia.

China has always eschewed all formal alliances, and will see no reason to change that policy. But a network of bilateral and multilateral security arrangements, with a network of sympathetic states who will be supportive of China in international disputes, may well provide a degree of reassurance against sudden eruptions of disorder.

The U.S. has alliances with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines, and a formal though ill-defined commitment to Taiwan. China would probably like to have some kind of regular arrangement to set against that. China's relations with ASEAN have provided a degree of stability and common interest, and the Belt and Road project will serve to provide economic underpinning to these important relationships.

A year ago it looked as though dissensions between neighbors over territorial issues in the South China Sea might render it difficult to achieve a regional meeting of minds on security issues. But China has been able to turn the situation to her own advantage.

The turning point here was the election of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines in May 2016. There were fears that the unpredictable Duterte might take a confrontational approach to China. However, due to a disagreement with former U.S. President Obama, Duterte decided to embrace China, and expresses a wish to align his country's interests with those of China and Russia, in a clear snub to the West.

What this might mean in practice for regional security is as yet unclear, but the immediate result has been a speedy replacement of tension with cooperation in the South China Sea. Now that they are no longer confronting China on the sovereignty issues, the Chinese are now allowing Filipino fishermen access to fishing grounds around the formerly disputed islands and reefs. And it is likely that funds will soon start flowing from the AIIB for much-needed infrastructural projects in the Philippines.

The Philippine volte-face might have remained a unique peculiarity, were it not for other regional developments in the second half of 2016. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's visit to China in early November suggested a degree of rapprochement which went beyond purely economic cooperation.

Malaysia is set to enjoy the benefits of a funding package as part of the Belt and Road programme, which also contains a strategic element - Chinese investment in a joint venture to build a new deep-water port at Melaka. This will serve as a safeguard for Chinese shipping traffic through the strategically vital Malacca Straits, indicating that guarding vital sea lanes will no longer be seen primarily as a U.S. responsibility.

This should not be seen as an attempt to establish hegemony: security of trade routes is an obvious complement to the strategic Belt and Road programme, especially as questions are now being raised over continuing U.S. commitment to the region. China is demonstrating the will to take up a share of responsibility commensurate with her growing global prominence.

Tim Collard is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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