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About the Author
MH Rajesh is an alumnus of Indian Naval Academy and Defence Services Staff College. He has post graduate degree in Strategic Studies from Madras University. He is presently a Research Fellow at United Services Institution of India, focusing on China and Indian Ocean.
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Emerging Geopolitical Trends in East Asia
Seok-soo Lee (Director-General, the RINSA, South Korea)
East Asia remained peaceful since the end of the Cold War mainly due to strategic leadership by the United States in the region. However with a rising China, East Asia witnessed the realignment of regional geopolitics. The United States tries to maintain and strengthen US-dominant order in the region, while growing China challenges the status quo forged by the United States. Attempts have been made to reconfigure power distribution in the region by a growing China. The escalating tensions in the South China Sea highlight a standoff between the United States and China.
Termination of the bloc politics at the global level brought about a uni-polar strategic framework in East Asia. Given the uni-polar international system, the United States stayed dominant in East Asia as the only superpower. The absence of a competing peer ensures US-led regional security environment for a while. The seemingly fixed regional construct became unstable by the advent of a strong China equipped with economic and military might. With onset of the current decade, existing power distribution underwent modification in East Asia.
Peaceful development is the primary national objective of China. In order to achieve that goal, China wants to maintain favourablerelations with the United States and other regional countries. But China became aggressive and assertive to the extent that it could not tolerate any thing that affects its core interests such as territorial sovereignty, security, and development. Furthermore, the tension between China and Japan has been on the rise due to several reasons such as military confrontation, difference in interpretation of history, and the rise of nationalism in both countries. The accelerating rift between the two countries resulted in territorial dispute in the East China Sea.
Economic growth of China nudged China's ambition to be a powerhouse in the region. Resources available to her have been mobilized by Beijing for the elevation of regional and global status. Military and economic instruments are used to gain leverage to other regional states. For instance, ASEAN member states are heavily relying on trade with and investment by China, while they are increasingly dependent on the United States militarily. They are worried of China's aggressiveness and assertiveness in the South China Sea. Because of economic interdependence, regional countries would like to have better relations with China. But China's strategic expansion to the South China Sea poses military threat to ASEAN countries.
Confronting China's rise, the United States sought an option to effectively deal with a new geopolitical reality and ensure peace and stability in the region. For the United States, regional security and economic success seems to be a product of the long-lasting U.S. primacy in East Asia. In order to maintain a predominant position, Washington announced a new regional strategy of 'pivot' and rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. The strategy led to a reallocation of overseas military capabilities of the U.S. in favour of the Asia-Pacific region. Given the financial difficulty, the United States has tried to bolster alliance and improve relations with friends and partners in the region. In other words, the U.S. military build-up has been complemented by enhanced cooperation with allies and partners.
This paper is mainly designed to trace the changing nature of geo-politics in East Asia as a product of China's ascent. A basic assumption of the study is that the major power rivalry between the United States and China is a source of turbulence in strategic landscape in East Asia. The paper consists of three parts. First of all, it describes the emerging trend of geopolitics in the region. Then, it explores contributing factors to the geopolitical change. Last part is devoted to a discussion on both implications of a new geopolitics for regional peace and stability and how to successfully convert competition and confrontation to cooperation and accommodation among regional actors.
I Emerging Geopolitics in East Asia
China's rapid economic growth gave rise to the increase of military expenditure. As a result, China continued to modernize military capabilities especially in the area of navy, which are closely associated with power projection in East Asia. The regional policies by China were directed at the United States and regional countries. On the basis of overall growing power, China wanted to have a new relationship with the United States. Commencing 2010s, Chinese leaders, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping stressed that it was necessary to establish a new type of major power relations for regional peace and stability. China's assessment is that the United States put priority to its interests first and ignored China's interests in the past. For shaping a constructive relationship, Beijing asked Washington to acknowledge the status of China as the world's 2 largest economy and its major concerns and core interests.
Further, it is contended by China that the two major powers should forge a new relationship to avoid war. China warned that armed clash could take place between the rising power and an existing hegemon. According to a Beijing's proposal, a new relationship should be embodied by 'reciprocal' and 'equal' relations, which could be conducive to conflict avoidance, mutual respect and a win-win relation. China repeatedly stressed that both countries should mutually admit core interests and major concerns, while arguing that it has respected those of the United States without exception but the United States did not reciprocate. Sovereignty, security and economic development constitute the core interests of China. China frequently mentioned and reiterated the new relations between the two major countries with an intention to elevate its global status and extending its influence in East Asia.
With its status elevated by a new type of major power relations, China intends to induce neighbors to take side with it. Diplomatic, economic and military assets were utilized by China for the better relations with Southeast Countries. Economic abundance formulates a foundation of coercive diplomacy to ASEAN countries. For instance, economic assistance has been provided to selected countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Trade and investment also play a crucial role in broadening China's realm of influence in the region.
Among others, China's military build-up significantly affects neighboring countries' attitudes and behavior to China. Power projection capabilities constitute the main source of threat abroad. As China grows stronger, East Asian countries feel strategically trapped between the United States and China in any sense. Given a certain security condition, a country could be forced to make choice between the two major powers. Dispute in South China Sea is one case. Countries involved in the dispute are Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippine, and Vietnam, including China. Reclamation is in process in this area by China and Vietnam. Philippine and Vietnam have been in acute dispute with China.
In response to China's rise and its growing dominance in the region, the United States adopted 'rebalance' to the Asia-Pacific strategy. The rebalance strategy originated from a vision of "America's Pacific Century" presented by State Secretary Hillary Clinton in October 2011. Secretary Clinton offered an idea of strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific region. Following Clinton, President Barack Obama mentioned U.S. efforts to advance security, prosperity and human dignity across the Asia-Pacific in November, 2011. The term 'rebalance' was first used in the Defence Strategic Guidance (DSG) by the Department of Defence in 2012.
In the beginning, the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region was military-oriented, representing modest realignment of military capabilities. The DSG used 'rebalance' in the context of a major defence-resource shift, stressing the two components of the rebalance: relationships with Asian allies and key partners; an underlying balance of military capability and presence. Since the end of 2012, the UnitedStates began to emphasize diplomatic and economic aspects of the strategy. This change rests on the judgment that military approach cannot effectively address challenges from a rising China and a comprehensive approach is required.
With the rebalance adopted as a regional strategy, the United States has been cautious and hesitant to accept China's suggestion for a new model of superpower relations. Several considerations affected the U.S. reaction to the proposal. First of all, it is difficult for the United States to acknowledge China's core interest as sovereignty issues in disputed areas. Secondly, Washington has a different approach to form a new relation with Beijing. While the former took case by a case approach, the latter wanted a planned and systemic one. The United States wants China to assume responsibilities for global challenges, not completely recognizing China's core interests. Last but not least, it is afraid of sending the wrong signal to allies and partners which could perceive waning U.S. It also worries about a dramatic change of established status-quo in the region.
President Xi's recent visit to the United States clearly shows opportunities and limitations of the two big powers relations. The two leaders addressed global issues including Afghanistan, peacekeeping, nuclear security, wildlife trafficking, ocean conservation, sustainable development, food security, public health and health security, humanitarian assistance and disaster responses and multilateral institutions. They also touched on bilateral relations comprising Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), cyber-security, counter-terrorism, and people to people exchange. The two big powers demonstrated common interests in and concern over global agenda, while showing limitations in dealing with bilateral issues. For instance, they made no progress on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which is one of China's core interests. It is proved at the summit that it called on China to take responsibilities on global issues but rejected advancing a new relationship with China.
As examined, strategic landscape has been shaped by the two world's leading powers at the regional level. Within the framework of China-U.S. relations, other countries have had interactions with thetwo dominant powers. Regional countries can be categorized into three groups: pro-U.S.; pro-China; and neutral groups. The difficulty of classification lies in the fact that relations can vary across sectors. Most of states in the region shares economic interests with China, while most of them rely on U.S. presence and role in the region for security. Regional views of the U.S. rebalance imply relations between the United States and regional countries in security area. As figure shows, the U.S. allies are strong supporters of the balance, while China, North Korea and Russia are of negative attitudes to the rebalance.
Strategic tension has been on the rise as China became aggressive and assertive on territorial disputes since an incident in 2010 in the waters near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Furthermore, Beijing's claims over disputed islands in the South China Sea have raised tension and threatened regional stability. The South China Sea became a flash point in East Asia. North Korea's nuclear program could be a game changer in the region, raising concerns over a nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia. North Korea did not listen to even China's recommendations for denuclearization and conducted nuclear test four times.
II Determinants of Regional Geopolitics
At the center of a newly emerging security structure are, among other factors, China's rise and an ensuing power transition defined by shifting regional balance of power. China's economic growth is an engine of military build-up in China. Between 1998 and 2007, China recorded an average annual economic growth rate of 12.5%. In 2015, China allocated $145 billion to defence budget in comparison with about $10 billion in 1997. This trend reveals a huge increase of military spending less than a decade. With boosting defence spending, China continued to pursue military modernization to build robust military capabilities. China's modernization efforts appear comprehensive, systemic, and well-planned.
Despite a rapid military build-up, China remains much weaker than the United States in terms of aggregate military power. The United States has the largest military budget in the world which is bigger than combination of following big military spenders of China, France, UK, Japan and India. It is world number one in terms of defence budget, weapon systems, research and development, training and education and experience of war. It maintains overall military superiority even in East Asia. Meanwhile, Chinese forces are far inferior to their U.S. counterparts in quality of equipment, experience and training.
Even though it is observed that China reduced the disparity with the United States in military capabilities, China remains limited in various aspects. China still suffers from underdeveloped power projection capabilities and deficiency in training and operational abilities. Despite recent advance in power projection capabilities, the operational range is not much extended due to limited number of small tanker aircraft that could refuel aircraft in the air during fighting. PLA revealed shortcomings in air and naval operations at a distance from mainland. For training, China's armed forces never had combat experience since its border conflict with Vietnam starting 1979.
An estimate indicates that the overall U.S. military might have experienced degradation due to under investment, poor implementation of modernization program and budget sequestration on readiness and capacity. According to a Heritage report, the United States' military posture is rated as 'marginal' and in trending toward 'weak.' Given the trend of U.S. military shrinking and rapid military modernization by PLA, the gap of military capabilities between the major powers is getting gradually narrowed. It is, however, widely accepted that there is a long way to go for China to be equivalent to the U.S. military capabilities.
Apart from aggregated military might, geography and distance matter. A recent dynamic study shows that the location of the battlefield affects regional power balance. Strategic advantages and disadvantages can be meaningfully determined by the location of operational area. In sum, China has more advantages in the areas close to mainland. For instance, it maintains strategic edge in Taiwan Strait rather than South China Sea because of operational distance. Geographical advantages help China challenge the United States and its allies and partners more seriously.
Balance of the aggregated military power could lead to misunderstanding of East Asia security construct. Also, a static counting of overall manpower and equipment cannot capture a power balance between major powers in operational context of battlefields.
It would be wrong to underestimate China's military capacities on the basis of overall military power which could inflict damage to the United State forces in East Asia. It is the shifting military balance across flash points that drive a new military competition between the two leading powers in the region. As such, superpowers' rivalry defines a new trend of geostrategic landscape in the region.
Interdependence among regional countries plays a role in shaping security conditions in East Asia. First of all, the extent of interdependence should be examined between the United States and China. Interdependence has intensified between the two big countries across various areas such as trade, China's holding of U.S. debt, information technology and cyber-risk, energy and people to people exchanges. Trade and educational exchanges promote cooperation and mutual understanding, while the effects of interdependence inother issues are in question. Pundits point to both negative and positive impact on the bilateral relations between the two leading countries with military and economic power.
Economic interactions also influence security environment in East Asia. There has been a myth that economic interdependence contributes to regional peace and stability. Emerging China-centered economic order make us rethink the correlation between security and interdependence. The problem is that interdependence in East Asia is by nature asymmetric. Due to China's rapid economic growth, small countries became more dependent on China. As a result, China expanded its clout to neighbors in the region. A dichotomous structure appeared: China-centered economic activities; and the U.S.-centered security arrangement.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Geopolities, Security and Bilateral Relations — Perspectives From India and South Korea"
Copyright © 2017 United Service Institution of India, New Delhi.
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Table of Contents
Introduction – by RINSA,
1. Emerging Geopolitical Trends in East Asia Seok-soo Lee,
2. Geopolitical Trends in Indo-Pacific: Implications For Regional Security Maj Gen B K Sharma,
3. Cooperative Governance in East Asia: Lessons from European Case Hanbeom Jeong,
4. Security Cooperation between Republics of India and Korea Lalit Kapur,
5. Nuclear Security Issues: Challenges and Opportunities (North Korea's Nuclear Threat Perspective) Yong Soo Kwon,
6. Nuclear Security Issues: Challenges and Opportunities Dr Roshan Khanijo,
7. Bilateral Cooperation between the ROK and India: ROK's Perspective Park Min-hyoung,
8. India South Korea Relations — An Indian Perspective MH Rajesh,
Conclusion – by USI,