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Mikhail Mamonov

Senior researcher, IFES, Russian Academy of Sciences

The decision taken by the Obama Administration on the "return" of the U.S. to East Asia, carried out with the support of traditional political-military instruments, again raised acute questions about the future of China-US relations and the probability of a full-scale conflict between the two powers. The first symptoms of this conflict can be seen in the active intervention of the United States in China's territorial disputes with the ASEAN states in the South China Sea.

The decision taken by the Obama Administration on the "return" of the U.S. to East Asia, carried out with the support of traditional political-military instruments, again raised acute questions about the future of China-US relations and the probability of a full-scale conflict between the two powers. The first symptoms of this conflict can be seen in the active intervention of the United States in China's territorial disputes with the ASEAN states in the South China Sea.

Beijing is skeptical about the potential of the American leadership in the Asia-Pacific region, it seeks to reconcile the United States with the inevitable increase in Chinese power, including military and political, and hints at the need to share responsibility for the region.

Objectively, the security system in East Asia based on a set of bilateral military alliances of the U.S. with individual states, which has seen no significant changes since the end of the Cold War, needs to be transformed. The future of security in East Asia will largely depend on whether Beijing and Washington are ready to consider the views, concerns and interests of each other when gradually bringing the regional security architecture in line with the changed conditions of the international environment.

The great anti-Chinese wall?

Active turn by the U.S. toward East Asia has certainly led to a significant narrowing of the window of opportunities for China's foreign policy, and made one think that an "anti-China Great Wall” is being built.

In late 2011 the Obama administration decided to return the U.S. to the APR and to shift the focus of U.S. foreign policy efforts from the fight against terrorism and rebuilding the Middle East to the more traditional problem of "deterrence - engagement - balancing" in East Asia. This decision was put in practice in a rapid and somewhat straightforward manner inherent to the U.S.

On November 10, 2011, in her speech at the APEC summit in Honolulu, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the advent of "America’s Pacific Century". According to her, Washington is ready to take a leadership role in the APR, meeting the wishes of its partners and allies in East Asia (1; 2).

Secretary Clinton Visits Shwedagon
Pagoda in Rangoon

On November 16, 2011, Hillary Clinton and the Philippines Secretary for Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario signed the Manila Declaration, making the event coincide with the Diamond Jubilee of the Mutual Defense Treaty and reminding the world of the inviolability of the military alliance between the two countries. The declaration, in particular, stated that the two countries share a "common interest in maintaining freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce," whilst subscribing to a " rules-based approach in resolving competing claims in maritime areas through peaceful, collaborative, multilateral, and diplomatic processes within the framework of international law. This statement took on a very obvious meaning amid the renewing flare up of the conflict between Manila and Beijing about Scarborough Reef which is under the jurisdiction of the Philippines (in China it is called the Huangyan island).

On November 17, during his visit to Australia Barack Obama announced the decision to place 2,500 U.S. Marines in Darwin, in the north of the Australian continent, albeit on a rotating basis, who were supposed to be relocated from Japan.

On November 19, taking part in the East Asia Summit for the first time, Obama said: "Although we are not party to the dispute in the South China Sea and do not take sides, we attach great importance to maritime security in general and the resolution of disputes in the South China Sea in particular - as a Pacific power, as a maritime nation, as a trading nation and as a guarantor of security in the Asia-Pacific region"

The same logic was declared at the presentation of the U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to the Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore. He said the Pentagon's intention was to concentrate up to 60% of all the forces and means of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific by 2020. The visit of L. Panetta to Vietnam (one more, besides the Philippines, state party in the dispute about the ownership of the islands in the South China Sea) and his visit to the former Soviet base at Cam Ranh Bay, to which the U.S. expects to gain access [1] were a completely symbolic step speaking of Washington's readiness to expand the number of military and political allies in the region, including directly at the Chinese borders [2].

Such an active turn by the U.S. toward East Asia has certainly led to a significant narrowing of the window of opportunities for China's foreign policy, and made one think that an "anti-China Great Wall” is being built in the region. The sense of China's isolation was doubled by the fact that the military and political measures taken to strengthen its position in the APR were backed up by Washington with economic measures - in November 2011 it announced the launch of a major economic integration project named the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The purpose of the project is to create in the APR a preferential trade regime on the basis of a multilateral trade agreement with Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, Chile, and Peru (let us note - without the participation of China).

U.S. in Asia: The View from Beijing

Beijing's reaction to the emerging geopolitical challenges in Asia and its forecasts for the development of the situation are much more calm and balanced than those voiced by individual foreign analysts.

Firstly, it appears that Beijing understands the logic of the American foreign policy: in the pre-election year, departing from Afghanistan and reducing its military presence in the Middle East, the Obama administration simply has to demonstrate diplomatic progress in another key region of the world and, at the same time, reassure its Asian allies, who perceived a lack of attention on the part of the patron-state in the years of the global active campaign against terrorism and "unreliable regimes". Moreover, amidst the growth of new crisis tendencies in the world economy, the APR seems to be a "comparatively prosperous” island and the White House does not want to miss out on an opportunity to improve their economic situation through the expansion of trade relations (and the expansion of U.S. exports) with the still fast developing East Asian countries. However, the purely economic initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are not able to return the United States to the leading political position in the region. That is why it is quite natural for the U.S. to aim to compensate economic mechanisms by using a classic military-political set of instruments of a disciple from the school of political realism - by relying on a network of bilateral military alliances, especially with those countries that are either interested in increasing their regional influence (Australia) or feel the need for external security assurances (Philippines). Vietnam that is not yet a formal ally of the U.S. belongs to both categories. This is the conclusion of analysts in Beijing. For example, Chen Xiangyang, deputy director of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, who often expresses the position of the Ministry of State Security, in his article "To defend maritime rights and interests," says: "... in their economic development some countries depend on the huge Chinese market but at the same time rely on the U.S. for security. The United States has used this dependence in the field of security" [3]. The concern of the United States in the disputes in the South China Sea is therefore, despite assurances to the contrary by the U.S. administration, functional and technical.

Japanese Prime Minister Noda and
U.S. President Obama meeting last November
during the Asia-Pacific economic summit
in Hawaii

Secondly, China is skeptical (this skepsis is cautious, but does not seem to be insincere) assesses the U.S. chances of implementing its new regional foreign policy. For example, opinions about the Trans-Pacific Partnership project to which China has not been “let in”, vary from restrained politeness to open irony. For example, having blamed the participants of the Trans-Pacific Partnership project for its discriminatory nature and an attempt "to replace existing regional multilateral regimes," the Chinese Deputy Secretary of Commerce said that "in general the Trans-Pacific Partnership sets very high standards, and we have yet to see whether all its members will be able to meet them”. The authoritative Chinese economic newspaper "Zhongguo Jingji Baodao" in an article with the revealing title "The United States is not very good in choosing new partners for the Trans-Pacific Partnership ", explicitly states that without Japan and the Republic of Korea its practical value is small, and that China "will just calmly watch, without interfering" the development of the negotiations.

In his analysis of the new U.S. strategy in East Asia already-mentioned researcher Chen Xiangyang speaks of the following objective difficulties that may be faced in Washington during its implementation: the contradictions with Russia on the European Missile Defense and Syria, the need to continue to participate actively in the rebuilding of the Middle East, and the further aggravation of the contradictions with Pakistan and their impact on the settlement in Afghanistan will distract the U.S. from the APR, and the huge U.S. budget deficit, despite assurances from the White House, will inevitably lead to a reduction in military spending. These are the factors that, according to Chen Xiangyang, may force the United States to focus on internal rather than external challenges and problems.

Thirdly, China and the U.S. for a number of political and economic reasons are making efforts to prevent conflict. The Chinese take note, in the first place, of the conciliatory tone of the American foreign policy statements. Assessing the atmosphere at the Singapore Shangri-La Security Dialogue, "People's Daily" notes that, contrary to expectations, "de-escalation was the key word" at the summit, and the issue of disputes in the South China Sea was not a crucial part of discussions. Beijing also took notice of the words of L. Panetta who said that the U.S. was not ready to automatically intervene in China’s conflicts with other countries. Commenting on the speech by L. Panetta at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the well-known American political analyst and China expert B. Glaser said that he was "more clear than any other U.S. official" in pronouncing that “we want the states of the region to have an opportunity to defend themselves, but not to take for granted or expect that when there is a problem the United States will come to put out the fire ". It is noteworthy that the Chinese official media put B. Glaser’s words into the mouth of L. Panetta himself.

At the same time Beijing understands the logic that dictates the behavior of the United States and Asian countries towards China. The well-known Chinese researcher Wang Jixi, in his article "Why the international environment has become more severe for China" points out that "in the process of buildup of China’s defense potential its neighbors and the United States not only doubt China’s peaceful intentions, but also extend their defensive measures against it in addition to coordinating their policies towards China”.

China no longer wants to "calmly watch": a conflict with the U.S. or a new structure of regional security?

The return of the U.S. to Asia, and the strengthening of the positions of Beijing, including military and political, are objective and logical processes. The increase in tension in the region is an inevitable consequence of their development and interaction in the context of the existing political situation, compounded by the change of elites and the associated intensification of the political struggle in the United States and China.

On the one hand, Beijing does not just show it is unwilling to be integrated in the US-centric model of the East Asian sub-system of international relations: it does not understand its substance in the changed conditions, and also doubts that the United States has sufficient resources to implement such a model. On the other hand, not going farther the assurances on the priority of peace and development, China has, until recently, not departed from Deng Xiaoping's maxim "never become a leader" and "do not attract attention," and has not offered a coherent alternative model for regional development. Perhaps, in the current situation exactly the lack of new ideas and approaches is the greatest threat to regional peace and stability. Indeed, without new foreign political developments the parties will rely on the existing doctrines, which are based on the confrontation algorithms that were formed as far back as at the time of the cold war.

Global architecture has started shifting: from the "one superpower and several strong powers” configuration towards the "two superpowers and several strong powers".

If Chinese-American relations are to be developed by inertia, then inevitably the U.S. will have to switch to the active deterrence of the military and political ambitions of Beijing in the near future. At the same time, they will endeavor, in the first instance, to limit its ability to project naval power (the example of turning the territorial dispute in the South China Sea into a major source of increased regional tension is rather illustrative.) It should be understood that the process of buildup of Chinese power is objective and to soften the U.S. opposition Beijing will have to find ways to divert Washington’s attention and resources from East Asia. The possibilities to do this, though limited, China has: from economic, monetary and financial instruments to the right of veto in the UN Security Council (as, for example, in case with Syria), special relationship with Pakistan [4] (in order to influence the peace process in Afghanistan) and, finally, its political and economic influence in Africa. If the confrontational model of China-US relations prevails in the ARP, those players in the region who are interested in expanding the U.S. support in their disputes and conflicts with China (the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan) will not be slack to take advantage playing on the contradictions between the two nations. This, in turn, will have a negative impact on the regional security, which, in particular, is stated as an alarming factor by the Russian researcher A. Sushentsov. The other states in the region will be put at a tremendous disadvantage: they will have to choose between expanding their economic partnership with China and developing their military-political cooperation with the United States [5].

This is a rather pessimistic scenario of the situation in East Asia. It seems that Beijing gently offers an alternative to this scenario. Let’s pause to discuss it in more detail.

In an interview to Huanqiu Shibao a leading Chinese researcher Yan Xuetong said: "It is inconceivable that the U.S. strategy in Asia, as the U.S. claims, will not be directed against China. The only difference is whether this will be at the level of actions preparing for a military confrontation with China, its deterrence or preventive cooperation with China”. Close attention should be paid to the last variant of interaction with China suggested by the Chinese researcher, especially in the context of its wording.


Yan Xuetong is one of the key figures in modern Chinese political science. He is the author of "junghe shili" - the concept of a comprehensive national power (a universal tool for measuring a state’s “relative weight” on the international arena) [6] and "sing anzuan guan" - a new security concept (a vision of the international relations system, alternative to the block one, which was a ritual mantra of China’s diplomacy in the late 1990s until the early and mid-2000s) [7]. His performances have never borne populist theories and hardly ever reflected only his personal point of view. At the end of 2011, in his article "From one superpower and several strong powers to two superpowers and several strong powers" Yan Xuetong evaluated the current political situation in the world by singling out the following basic trends of contemporary international development.

First. Given the fact that in the next five years only the U.S. and China will be able to maintain military spending at more than $100 billion a year, analyzing the material aspects of power, it can be concluded that the global architecture has started shifting: from the "one superpower and several strong powers” configuration towards the "two superpowers and several strong powers" one. In this case, chances of a period of multipolarity are reduced.

Second. The practice of interference in the internal affairs of other states (not only at the level of great powers, but also at the level of developing countries) has been institutionalized, and the principles of interference and non-interference can coexist.

Third. The processes of demagogization and emasculation of international institutions are growing in strength because "leading states lack sufficient resources to ensure leadership, and states with a potential sufficient to do this do not take on leadership functions."

Fourth. Equality and justice tend to be the main trend of social thought in the world, replacing their key competitor - the school of liberal thought - primarily in economy, under the impact of the crisis, because "as before irrational distribution fails to solve the problems of poverty and provide the necessities. "

Beijing is trying to make America accept the inevitability of bringing their military and political opportunities in line with their economic potential.

The author of the article calls on China "to keep up with the times" [8], and to take these trends into account when articulating its foreign policy.

In addition to its purely scientific value (as a reflection of the evolution of Chinese science of international relations, which has become rapid in the last decade), this article is of interest also as a Chinese foreign policy manifest.

First, this manifest allows interference in the internal affairs of other states as a foreign policy tool (which, in fact, is the conceptualization of the doctrine of "red lines diplomacy": recognizing that China has the so-called 'vital interests' the advocacy of which may require extreme measures [9]), second, it calls for a redistribution of responsibilities and leadership powers in multilateral organizations to improve their performance, and third, it proclaims justness and applicability of the official Chinese concept of "fair and rational global political and economic order ". And finally, the most important thing is that the article declares China’s willingness to discuss with the United States the issue of increasing the burden of China’s responsibility for global processes (we would add for ourselves, at least within a regional scope). And we are not talking in this case about the “world domination” system. China’s negative reaction to this idea of the American economist Niall Ferguson was voiced back in 2009-2010., when the new China-US partnership stirred up the same optimism as the US-Russia “reset” (1; 2). China does not want the U.S. to withdraw from East Asia, either. Were Washington to do it, it would completely frustrate the existing system of regional stability and the possibility of further growth for China.

South China Sea

Beijing is trying to make America accept the inevitability of bringing their military and political opportunities in line with their economic potential. It once again signals to the U.S. that it has to adjust the rules of conduct in the region: to recognize each other's interests in the South China Sea and East Asia in general, abandon the deterrence strategy, consider alternatives to the existing model of security in Asia, which is built on a network of bilateral military-political alliances of the region’s states with the U.S. and from which China continues to be excluded. According to Beijing, "Asia needs new security architecture and not a new leadership" [10].

The system of international relations developed in Greater East Asia objectively needs to be transformed (unlike in Europe, it has not essentially changed since the end of the cold war), and the transformation should be based on preventive co-optation of Beijing, on delegating to it part of responsibility for the sustainable development of the region. At this stage, while China’s international opportunities are still relatively small, this process can be controlled, non-confrontational and can be a lot less painful than trying to hastily fix a change in the status quo a decade later. The “return” to Asia, declared by the U.S., is the right moment to start a substantive discussion on the issue.

1. When communicating with the media during his visit to Vietnam L. Panetta openly declared: "Access for the U.S. naval ships to this facility is a key component of the U.S. relationship with Vietnam, and we see a tremendous potential here." See: Pentagon Seeks Return to Long-Abandoned Military Port in Vietnam // Los Angeles Times, 03.06.2012.

2. In this context we can’t but mention the historic visit of Hillary Clinton in early December 2011 to Myanmar (Burma), a traditional satellite of Beijing that in the last year took the path of democratic reform.

3. Xiangyang Ch. Safeguard Maritime Rights and Interests / / China Daily, 2012.06.11. P. 9.

4. After the U.S. turned Pakistan from an ally in fight against terrorism into its de facto object, the China-Pakistan relations became even more important for Pakistan.

5. To illustrate this approach, Kissinger, in his article "The Future of US - China Relations: Conflict - Is A Choice, Not A Necessity," quotes a senior Indonesian official, addressing his American counterpart: "Do not leave us, but do not force us to choose." See: Kissinger H.A. The Future of US-Chinese Relations: Conflict Is a Choice, Not a Necessity // Foreign Affairs. 2012. March-April.

6. Shijie chzhuyao guojia tszunhe goli pingu [Estimating the Comprehensive National Strength of World Powers] // Tsyuantsyu chzhanlyue de getszyuy [Global Strategic Architectonics. International Environment of China in the New Century]. Beijing: Shishi chubanshe, 2000. P. 3; Xuetong Yan. The Rise of China and Its Power Status // Chinese Journal of International Politics. 2006. Vol. 1. P. 5-33.

7. Yan Xuetong. Sing antsyuan gaynyan yuy antsyuan hetszo guan [New Security Concept and New Views on Security Cooperation] / / Xiandai Guoji Guanxi [Contemporary International Relations]. 1997. Number 3. P. 28-32

8. That said the classic ideologeme of key CCP official texts is used in a rather sarcastic way.

9. Lam W. China Deploys Pugilistic Foreign Policy With New Vigor / / China Brief. Vol. 12. Issue 12. P. 3-6.

10. Ding Gang. Gay Meygo Zai Nanhai hua i tiao tszesyan [Drawing the Line for America in South China Sea-Related Issues] / / Renming Ribao Haiwaiban, 2012.06.01. P. 1

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