By Yan Xuetong
SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)
At the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) held in May, Chinese President Xi Jinping first formally put forward his “Asian new security concept.”
More details of Xi’s ideas emerged during his meeting with Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov on Aug. 19, when he spoke of “sharing together in danger and in safety.”
Great changes have taken place in China’s geopolitical environment over the past few years, particularly in the South China Sea and East China Sea. Therefore, China has been adjusting its policies towards its neighbors while continuing to strengthen economic cooperation with them to promote bilateral and multilateral relations. But will the economic regionalization, a very important diplomatic approach of China, help to improve its security relationship with other countries? Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University, shared his insights during an interview with the South Reviews magazine. The following are his main points:
Many people think the changes in China’s surrounding environment started from 2009 when the South China Sea suddenly became a focus of tension. In fact, they really began in 2008 when the Beijing Olympic Games was held. A new phenomenon appeared – the so-called “theory of Chinese responsibility.” The Beijing Olympic Games was considered as an event on an unprecedented scale that even developed countries might not be able to afford, let alone developing countries. Thus, it was obvious China had become very powerful, and so was ready to assume responsibilities.
On Jan. 1, 2010, the China-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Free Trade Area (FTA) was formally established in accordance with the Framework Agreement on China-ASEAN Comprehensive Economic Cooperation. ASEAN countries, however, worried that a zero tariff might bring in a flood of cheap Chinese goods and destroy their domestic enterprises. Meanwhile, the idea that China had become a superpower started to gain traction around the world. Yet, China still considered itself a developing country, not very different from other developing countries. It didn’t really begin adjusting its diplomatic policy until 2013 when Foreign Minister Wang Yi put forward the theme of “Major-Country Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics” in a speech delivered at the World Peace Forum.
Guided by previous diplomacy, China continued to implement a unilateral zero tariff policy. Then, the island disputes in East China and South China waters surfaced. Some East and Southeast Asian countries, it seemed, were using the issue to engineer frictions in the belief that China might make concessions to maintain its image as a major power.
The problem is that China’s relations with its neighbors are heavily dependent on economic dealings that tend to be the weakest and most unstable in international relations. China’s relations with Japan, without a doubt, are based on economic interests.
On Sept. 7, 2010, two Japanese Coast Guard patrol ships and a Chinese trawler clashed in waters off China’s Diaoyu Islands. The following day, the Japanese Coast Guard illegally seized Zhan Qixiong, the 41-year-old trawler captain, drawing protests from the Chinese side. The incident revealed the great changes occurring in the Japanese psychology. As China’s GDP has overtaken Japan’s, Japan has felt threatened, which is the basis for the continued friction.
Compared with East Asia, Central Asia is the most stable region in terms of China’s relations with its neighbors. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is an international organization dedicated to solving border disputes and dealing with terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.
South Asia, meanwhile, is relatively calm. The trade volume with China is relatively small. Historically, there have been security issues between China and India, tending to lead to a kind of preventive or negative security cooperation between the two countries.
In the meanwhile, China also needs to well handle the relations between the initiative of building the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and developing the SCO. Currently, the building of SREB is not based on the SCO, and the former involves more countries than the latter. At first, Russia took a stand against the SREB because it was not included. While attending the Winter Olympics in Sochi, however, President Xi welcomed Russia’s participation in the SREB and this caused a change of attitude in Moscow.
South China Sea issues
Relatively speaking, the issues in the South China Sea are not as difficult to solve as the conflicts involving Japan because of the different nature of the disputes. In the South China Sea, the issue is a distribution of economic interests, while in East Asia, China and Japan are involved in strategic structural contradictions.
In 2013, Premier Li Keqiang proposed upgrading the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area as a means of solving territorial disputes and this has increased regional stability and prosperity. With ASEAN countries gaining more benefits, tensions have eased in the South China Sea.
Also, there is a difference between the Philippines and Vietnam in their disputes with China. Out of personal need and interests, President Aquino has adopted a policy of resisting China, as he wants to use further provocative policies to obtain greater economic benefits. After Aquino departs, it will be easier to improve the relationship between China and the Philippines.
The territorial disputes between China and Vietnam have existed for many years. Vietnam’s future governments are not expected to undertake any big policy adjustments, either. China should enlarge regional cooperation with ASEAN to make Vietnam understand that it will be isolated and helpless if it doesn’t participate.
East Asian issues
With Japan expanding its collective self-defense, people can see the Japanese government’s policy toward China is not to consider economic interests alone. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to maintain Japan’s great power status. He wants to unite with some countries to consolidate Japan’s international status, pursuing political power status as a so-called “normal state.”
The confrontation with China has greatly improved Japan’s international political status. The issues of Japan’s wartime sex slavery of Korean women, and its refusal to apologize and compensate for past military aggression show that Abe really doesn’t want to see improved relationships with neighboring countries. He needs to keep a tense relationship to facilitate the restoration of Japan’s collective self-defense rights and the revision of the constitution.
Therefore, so long as Abe is in power, any policies to improve relations with Japan are meaningless. What is meaningful is a separation of official and non-governmental exchanges. That means to continue to isolate the Abe government in politics, but to increase the exchanges between the two countries in economic and social terms in order to create the conditions for the improvement of China-Japan relations in the post-Abe era.
The role of the United States in East Asia
The United States makes use of the contradictions between China and Japan.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has judged who poses the greatest threat to its national security from a global perspective: China or Japan in Asia, Germany or Russia in Europe, Brazil or Argentina in South America, and Egypt or Nigeria in Africa.
When the Soviet Union was a global threat, the United States regarded China’s place as being of rising strategic significance. After the Cold War, the United States still thought China’s strength did not pose a genuine challenge. But after 2008, it has changed its thinking – it now thinks that China could pose a strategic threat.
While many American strategists regard China as a superpower, will they have any divergence of views on which country offers the best hope as an ally? Will they have any divergence of views on whether to use Japan to resist China?
Obviously, the consensus has made the United States decide to push Japan ahead in its Asia-Pacific alliance and aid it to block China in East Asia.
China is trying to shape the regional environment in an initial way by means of patrol around the Diaoyu Islands, the establishment of the Air Defense Identification Zone and the establishment of Sansha City as a strategic toehold in the South China Sea. It is hard to say that every step has succeeded, but it is good to grasp the overall initiative and situation.
As a rising nation, China finds it is falling behind on protecting its rapidly increasing overseas interests. It has therefore had to raise the priority of security issues. Security cooperation between countries will lay the most solid foundation for bilateral relations.