China, U.S. and East Asia
People disliked the confrontation between the Soviets and the U.S. during the Cold War. Thus they hate the deterrence strategy that developed. Most people have forgotten that the peace between the U.S. and the Soviets was based on a strategy of mutual assured destruction (MAD). MAD is not a nice way to maintain peace but we have not developed a more effective strategy to replace it in East Asia.
Although Chinese military capability is far behind the U.S., its military expenditure is already second to the U.S. The Chinese military cannot compete with the U.S. globally but it has enough power to compose an effective military deterrence to the U.S. in East Asia. Due to the asymmetric mutual deterrence (AMD), East Asia enjoyed a longer peace than Europe. In the foreseeable future, regional peace will be still based on that asymmetric mutual deterrence.
China-U.S. security conflicts will become intensive in the next two years. Obama is a political leader good at promising cooperation but weak in implementing his policy. As the Pentagon becomes more suspicious of Chinese military modernization, Obama’s policy toward China will become tougher for the sake of winning support from the Pentagon.
In the next two years, China and the U.S. will witness more conflicting interests rather than common interests in security fields.
Most of the East Asia nations will possibly regard the increasing conflicts between China and the U.S. as opportunities rather than dangers. They may take advantage of the security conflicts to advance their security interests, as Vietnam did regarding the South China Sea. The more advantage other East Asia states take, the more regional security conflicts we are going to witness.
The solution is to set up a new regional security architecture based on China-U.S. preventative cooperation.
MAD and the ABM treaty are all typical cases of preventative security cooperation. Preventative cooperation aims at preventing new conflicts or escalation of conflicts after they occur. Preventative cooperation requires mutual respect of the other side’s security interests. For the sake of reaching agreement on each other’s security interests, China and the U.S. should admit the conflicting strategic interests between them and then negotiate how to draw a border between their interests. It would be impossible to reduce security conflicts between them if China and the U.S. are reluctant to admit the structural conflicts between a rising power and a sole superpower.
It is beyond the individual capability of China or the U.S. to reduce security conflicts substantially in East Asia. It requires collective efforts. But now there is no mechanism to guarantee regional security mainly because there is no effective leadership. For the sake of establishing an efficient security architecture for East Asia we need a joint leadership by China and the U.S. Unfortunately, the U.S., its alliance and Asean countries are rejecting this idea. Most East Asian countries worry about China-U.S. joint domination in regional security and want to keep the advantage of China-U.S. security conflicts for the sake of advancing their political or security interests.
In the foreseeable future, most East Asia countries will prefer to see a conflicting, rather than a cooperative, relationship between China and the U.S. Meanwhile they hope to have fewer conflicts with neighbors. It’s difficult for these two things to exist side by side. In brief, a policy of pretending to be friends may temporarily cover security diversity, but it will create more conflicts in this region.
*The speaker is Director of the Institute of International Studies, Tsinghua University.
By Yan Xuetong