Related Articles Commentary Paper SIIS Report
Jan 01 0001
Strategic Transition and Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region 
With the protracted global financial and economic crisis, it is important to evaluate the recent developments of the global economic governance situation for thinking Asia’s role in the ongoing global economic governance reconstruction, especially in the dimension of G20, and how China can push Asia to play a greater role in global economic governance.
I. The Current Global Economic Governance

Ever since the end of the Cold War, East Asia has been looking for an institutional arrangement that meets its security needs. The effort reflects at least two realities of Asia-Pacific security: First, countries in the region have a sense of insecurity. They do, indeed, when they are still plagued by so many headaches such as enmities contracted in history, disputes over territories, contentions for resources, and risks from environment exploitation. In the past, these problems nestled under the framework of the bipolar confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Now that this framework has fallen apart, will any of these issues ferment into conflicts? Should they be solved right away? If yes, where are the solutions? So practical and pressing, they have served as the driving force behind the search by the countries in this region for a security mechanism meeting their immediate needs.

Secondly, the existing security mechanism in the region is not satisfactory. Although some security mechanisms do have been installed in this region, they simply fall far short of the local security needs and expectations. It calls for new efforts, therefore, to work out and put into place some security arrangements of greater efficiency and wider coverage. Now working in the region are two sets of institutional arrangements that have the potential to handle region-wide security issues: the multilateral system based on consultation and dialogue and centering around the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), such as the ASEAN Regional Forum; and the U.S.-led alliance system created in the Cold War period and still working today. As a result, the relationship between the regional security mechanism and the U.S.-led alliance system will be crucial to the development of the former.

The paper tries to discuss the impact of the alliance mechanism on the security in the Asia-Pacific region and concludes that the region has to go beyond the framework of alliance and build up a security environment for all through cooperation and collectiveness.

II. U.S.-led Alliance: A Historical Phenomenon and Reality

U.S.-led alliance is a reality in the Asia-Pacific and we have to give an objective assessment to the phenomenon.

First of all, we have to know that the policy of alliance goes long back into history. It is quite common in state-to-state relations that states resort to alignment to enhance their strength and at the same time to limit and reduce the strength of the other side. That is to say, through alignment, states adjust the configuration of world power. Alliance is a typical way of adjusting balance of power and therefore it is hard to expect the demise of alliances as long as balance of power is still be regarded as a useful tool in state-to-state relations. Alliance might be an important symbol of the Cold War, but alliance does not exist only in the Cold War.

Secondly, the U.S. attaches great importance to its alliance system. Just like Zbigniew Brzezinski says: “American global supremacy is thus buttressed by an elaborate system of alliances and coalitions that literally span the globe,”[①] U.S. national security strategy lists the alliance system as one of its three security pillars. Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect the U.S. to abandon its alliance system very soon. However, the acceptance of the reality of the existing U.S. alliance system in the Asia-Pacific does not mean that we agree all of the U.S. alliances done in the region. On the contrary, China sees many negative impacts of the alliance system on regional security. China just wants to take a realistic way to reduce the negative impacts of the alliance system and to explore the possibility of building an effective regional security mechanism with the existing alliance system.

Thirdly, the U.S.-led alliance system has the function of restraining the allied nations. Alliance, of course, is mainly forged against adversaries, but at the same time it has the internal function of controlling members. A typical case here is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It was a major instrument of the West in the Cold War to confront the Soviet Union and its East European allies, but on the other side it has a function of restraining Germany from the very beginning. Furthermore, NATO was a platform for European countries and the U.S. to tie up with each other. For the European side, it used NATO to engage the U.S. into European security affairs, and for the U.S., NATO is the counterpart of the Marshall Plan in the security field. Therefore, U.S. alliance system built up after WWII has a clear tendency of controlling its allied countries. In the Asia-Pacific, the function of U.S. alliance on restraining its internal partners is typically reflected in its relations with Japan. With U.S. security and nuclear umbrella commitment, Japan has little reason to pursue military and particularly nuclear development.

Therefore, seen academically, U.S. alliance in the Asia-Pacific is a complicated phenomenon. Only with a correct understanding of the phenomenon, can we figure out a feasible and proper blueprint for regional security.

III. U.S.-led Alliance: Base of Asia-Pacific Security Community?

Since the existence of U.S. alliance in East Asia is a reality and there are some positive impacts of U.S. alliance on regional security, someone expect that the U.S. alliance may provide a foundation for the Asia-Pacific to build up a multilateral security mechanism or security community to safeguard the security of the whole region. The expectation might be understandable, but it is unfeasible to realize the expectation.

It is true that the U.S.-led alliance has some advantages to be a base of the multilateral regional security mechanism, for example the existing institutions of networking and working together, but all of the advantages cannot offset the fundamental shortcoming of alliances on regional security cooperation, that is the confrontational nature of alliances.

Although alliances have the functions of binding internal or external actors, as some scholars have emphasized,[②] the core feature of alliances is still to oppose something.[③] If the “something” here is a specific country, the creation of an alliance can only divide the world into two or more groups and will prevent countries from uniting to tackle the so-called common problems. In this sense, the U.S.-led alliance system runs counter to the development of an inclusive security mechanism in the Asia-Pacific region.

In the first place, the U.S.-led alliance system will not be able to bring in all the powers in this region. Without a rival, an alliance will lose the legal ground for survival. The development of the U.S.-led alliance system will surely trigger a rebound of its rival, cutting East Asia into two or even more blocs in the end. Even so, East Asia may still manage to maintain its stability, while the United States may get excuses to involve itself in the regional affairs. This, however, runs absolutely opposite to the inclusive regional security mechanism aspired by the East Asian nations.

Secondly, there exists the possibility of integration of the United States and its allies into the multilateral security mechanism centering around the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Such integration, however, may take two forms. The first possibility is that the United States and its allies will operate as a bloc under the multilateral security mechanism so as to play a bigger role therein. This way, the exclusiveness of the U.S.-led alliance system will be smuggled smoothly into the ASEAN security mechanism. Possibly, the ASEAN security mechanism and the U.S.-led alliance system will develop into a so-called security community that will surely inherit the tricks of the U.S.-led alliance system for countering external threats and cement the legal ground of its survival by reinforcing its rival.

The other possibility is the U.S.’ submission to ASEAN’s leadership and participation in East Asia cooperation as a general member. To do so, the United States will have to downgrade the role of its alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region and give up its leadership in the system, something believed by people familiar with U.S. behaviors to be totally unimaginable.

Therefore, as long as their exclusivity remains, alliances are not an acceptable guiding concept for an inclusive security mechanism in the Asia-Pacific. But if alliances were to reject such exclusivity, e.g., by announcing that they would not threaten a third party, they would not be alliances in the traditional sense, but would start to transit to some kind of system of collective security or even to a form of security community.

IV. Regional Security Mechanism: Enhancing Cooperation among Major Powers

All said, what truly lies ahead for the Asia-Pacific region is to minimize the influence of alliance politics and promote benign interaction between different forces if it hopes to install a regional security mechanism that brings in all and treats all equally. Meanwhile, China and the United States as powers of great influence in the world should contribute their due to the development of such a security mechanism in a more positive manner.

To play a more constructive role in the development of regional security mechanisms, China and the United States should clear themselves of traditional ideas about balance of power and view their relations from a new angle. As a classical theory in international politics, balance of power still sways international relations today. It is a true fact, however, that time has changed. Given the new situation, China and the United States should try to relay the foundation supporting the relations among major powers on the basis of objective evaluation of the reality of international relations. It is precisely for this purpose that China’s leaders have called for development of new-type relations among major powers, which has got a fairly positive response from the United States.[④] It is crystal clear, therefore, that the leaders of both countries are willing to part with their traditional thinking, although turning of such willingness into practical steps is what really counts.

Alliance politics embodies balance of power. If the United States truly agrees to join China in modeling a new type of relations among major powers, as said by Thomas Donilon, former national security adviser of U.S. President Barack Obama,[⑤] it should first of all undertake to lessen the impacts of alliance politics on its relations with China, rein in its allies, and keep them from exploiting the alliance system for ‘balancing’ China. China, meanwhile, should free itself from the outdated mentality of confronting alliances with alliances and spend more time and efforts on the solution of regional security issues.

For quite some time recently, East Asia has been shifting its attention to local security affairs. This is a fact that cannot and need not be evaded, but apart from territorial disputes some countries have purposely intensified, East Asia is plagued by quite some other security challenges today such as cross-border crimes causing heavy casualties, nuclear pollution resulting from earthquakes, arms race, ocean-shipping security, and natural disasters. When looking at security issues, East Asian countries should not have their view of the important overshadowed by the trivial, keeping their attention merely on territorial disputes.

Neither should they dream to secure solutions for all regional issues at just one gathering of their leaders. On the contrary, the security mechanism they look for should be more diversified, more functional, and more effective. Take for instance the nuclear issue. East Asian countries should realize that the biennial nuclear summit advocated by U.S. president Obama is not a full solution to nuclear reactor safety in their region and try to work out a regional nuclear management platform through serious reflection on the March 11 incident in Japan.

As a key participant in regional affairs, China should work even more enthusiastically for the creation of a platform of cooperation that answers the security concerns in the region. This is the only way leading to the sound solution of the various security issues in this region, while security exchanges and cooperation of multiple participation and great substantiality will help foster a better-balanced and more inclusive outlook on security.

V. Conclusion

For its limited ability, China may not be able to put its idea about the maintenance of regional peace and security into practice so smoothly, of course. To answer the ever louder call from the outside world for greater input from it, China even needs to constantly adjust its diplomatic mechanisms. On the other hand, some countries may hate to see any substantial improvement in the regional situation, or even choose to run in the opposite direction for their own gains instead of contributing any effort to peace and stability in their region. Under such a circumstance, what is left for China is to put more energy into domestic construction and cooperation in other regions while maintaining some appropriate participation in East Asian affairs and forums. After all, sustainable development is the goal China will stubbornly drive at. Asia-Pacific cooperation is a major source for China’s development, but not the only one. China will not misplace Asia-Pacific interaction in its diplomatic and strategic agendas just because of the U.S. return to Asia or its claim of the so-called ‘Pacific Era.’

To some extent, China, East Asia, the Asia-Pacific region and the world as a whole have all entered a stage of transition, a stage when East Asia’s demand for a security mechanism has kept growing. No consensus has been reached yet, however, over the type of the security mechanism to be installed or the way to create it. It is China’s hope that Canada, with its unconventional position and rich experiences in international exchanges, will help East Asia to objectively evaluate its situation and offer some solutions acceptable to all sides so that the region will march in step toward the goal of peaceful development and win-win cooperation.

Source of documents:Global Review

more details:

[①] Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And Its Geostrategic Imperatives, New York: Basic Books, 1998, p. 15.
[②] Su Ruolin and Tang Shiping, “Mutual Binding: Central Mechanism of Alliance Management”, Journal of Contemporary Asia-Pacific Studies, Vol. 3, 2012, pp. 6-38.
[③] Henry Kissinger, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002, pp. 45-46.
[④] For analysis on the China-U.S. interaction on the concept of New Model of Major Power Relations, please see: Yang Jiemian, “A New Type of Great Power Relationship: Constructing Theory, Strategy and Policy,” China International Studies, May/June 2013.
[⑤] “National Security Advisor to President Obama Thomas Donilon Delivers Remarks at Asia Society,” New York, March 11, 2013.