Different options have recently been aired before Washington think tanks for the regional architecture of Asia/the Asia-Pacific/the Indo-Pacific. Comparisons of four of these and the responses to some by the audience should be instructive. They are: 1) deferring to China centered on the South China Sea, promoting sinocentrism; 2) endorsing an invigorated EAS, capable of establishing the Asia-Pacific Community (APC); 3) sponsoring the Northeast Asian Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI) in search of inclusive, sub-regional multilateralism; and 4) promoting US-Japan-Australia trilateral security cooperation, suggesting a NATO of the East; All make assumptions about Obama’s “rebalance to Asia,” Xi’s “new type of major power relations,” the balancing or hedging role of middle powers, and the chances for regionalism in an atmosphere where Russia is pursuing a “new cold war” and North Korea is unsettling the regional order in a quest to become a nuclear power. In the aftermath of the November 2014 APEC, EAS, and G20 summits and against the backdrop of rapid progress toward a decision on TPP, exploration of these multiple options indicates that the media focus on the Middle East and Ukraine is not keeping strategists in many countries from competing in envisioning the future of Asia.
Option 1: From the South China Sea toward Sinocentrism
Starting with the argument that China and the United States are the key to peace and progress in the world and, even more, in East Asia, and that they should proceed in a manner that does not force others to choose, Chinese are arguing that the November meeting between Xi and Obama represents an historic opportunity and proposing to Washington audiences that it is time for think tanks and academics to find concrete ways to advance these sentiments. The two most imminent challenges are seen to be the South China Sea, where China is rushing to build artificial islands, and cyber threats on which US vigilance has recently become greatly heightened. Now intense dialogue is needed, especially due to the resurgence of geopolitical conflicts in the world as well as the spread of international terrorism and sectarian conflicts. Given the need for an effective international order, China and the United States should be focused on their common security interests. The new model of bilateral relations the two can construct would be the essential building block for this joint pursuit, and the seventieth anniversary of the end of WWII is the ideal time to maintain and reform the international and regional order, taking new win-win realities of the twenty-first century into account. In this formulation, the United States needs China more than it needs alliances dating from the Cold War, which are narrow and divisive. To China, respect means setting aside fears about its regional aspirations and recognizing that it is on the right side of history and the United States is at a crossroads able to join China.
As for the South China Sea, Chinese argue that their country has the sovereignty to build the islands. They maintain that they service ships and serve defensive goals while providing public goods and will not interfere with freedom of navigation. Also, the “one belt, one road” initiative is for the common development of all, which the United States should welcome and even support. Yet, when pressed, officials from China make clear that they are not flexible about their plans and are not seeking any other country’s input. This is a take-it or leave-it proposition. Moreover, there is no right to reconnaissance flights in another state’s EEZ, according to their inflexible interpretation of the conventions of the sea. The impression is that the South China Sea is an internal waterway opening to commercial shipping, not to military vessels. In queries, the role of historical versus legal rights was raised, with China claiming both and opposing “extremism” on the basis of either, and the need for confidence-building measures was suggested, with China claiming that it is already undertaking them. In contrast, others argued that the 1982 UNCLOS in no way restricts military activity in an EEZ, and the 1988 US-Soviet agreement further established the liberal maritime order with an eye to avoiding collisions. Moreover, freedom of navigation safeguards the rights of military vessels. In this exchange, Chinese indicated that sovereignty is inviolable and takes precedence over international norms. Overall, their argument rests on looking at the big picture internationally to pursue common interests, while yielding to China on regional matters, including the South China Sea. Others warned that law is meaningless if any interpretation is allowed, and that China is taking the position that smaller powers’ interests are of little consequence if the two greatest powers find an accommodation or even that “might makes right” as China’s sovereignty claims need to be respected while those of others do not.
By extension, the arguments raised about the South China Sea bear on relations in other sub-regions in China’s expansive view of Asia. China offers support for Russia in Ukraine in return for a free hand in Central Asia (and more support for its goals in East and South Asia) to forge an economic order that can lead to a greater Chinese presence in other respects. It views Northeast Asia in like manner, pressuring South Korea as well as Japan, North Korea, and Russia as its economic leverage keeps growing. While the US role in Central Asia is seen as secondary, in Northeast Asia it is treated as a priority for cultivating a sense of common interests applicable to all bilateral issues. China’s focus on Southeast Asia has the most urgency—a core interest based on claims of sovereignty, not on national interest rooted in a balance of power but on China’s historical or cultural legacy. All are on the agenda of Sinocentrism, which presumably leaves room for US centrality elsewhere. These were the implicit messages that some took away from Chinese presentations, none of which was echoed in any of the responses discernible from the DC listeners.
Option 2: From the EAS toward the APC via the G2
Reviving his call for the APC with a much more extensive argument, Kevin Rudd came to DC for the launch of his report, “U.S.-China 21: The Future of U.S.-China Relations under Xi Jinping—Towards a New Framework of Constructive Realism for a Common Purpose.” His presentation, which need not be covered in detail, because it is widely available, makes the assumption that Xi is driven by hard-nosed realism; a common strategic framework with the United States is within reach despite fundamental disagreements due to different national interests, whose clarification is a useful starting point. Bleak views of each other’s strategic intentions could then be overcome by constructive engagement, avoidance measures, rules of the road, and even grand strategic bargains. Above all, Rudd advocates using the EAS as a regional security organization with the right membership, building on ASEAN’s record of boosting stability and settling on one Southeast Asian city as its permanent host in pursuit of the APC. Expanding functional cooperation and relying on joint initiatives by the United States and China, multilateralism would advance in stages, serving to convince both powers that their objectives can be reconciled in regional security.
Rudd’s broad strategic approach for managing differences and forging a shared sense of trust in multilateral institutions rests on assumptions that not all share. It seems to be a stretch to expect multilateralism—and one with the far-reaching aim of forging a community—somehow to be the ideal mechanism for resolving serious strategic differences between Washington and Beijing that they cannot figure out how to address through bilateral talks. While Rudd does not repeat the assumption that the amorphous and ever-changing ASEAN leadership has the coherence and consistency to manage two such independent-minded powers, he does place great faith in a newly strengthened ASEAN secretariat to be settled in just one location—Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, or Singapore—to have the judgment and clout to do so. The optimism Rudd shows in Xi Jinping—powerful, setting a clear direction for China, and, from his meeting with Obama in November and his call for an “Asia-Pacific dream,” seemingly ready to seek a shared destiny with the United States—was not widely shared. After all, many have found ample evidence in Chinese narratives that it is seeking an exclusive region, marginalizing the US role and the US alliances. The repetition of the word “realism” as the essence of this framework, shunts liberalism values, and identity to the side—problematic for the United States but for China too.
This assumes that China is amenable to a shared agenda rather than finding a need for a wide national identity gap linked to its rejection of convergence and appeal for stability. In this framework Japan and Russia are peripheral, having little choice but to fall in line with their more powerful strategic partners in accepting a G2 plus ASEAN, but that is not likely to hold, even as North Korea and others try to stir discord. Despite skepticism about the Rudd initiative, preparations for the Obama-Xi summit in September could explore its prospects in order to put bilateral relations in a regional security context in preparation for the fall EAS and APEC summits. The DC response did not reject the notion of continuing to strive for a regional approach.
Option 3: From NAPCI toward a Full-fledged Regional Security Architecture
In 2014, as the details of the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative were being developed, South Koreans tested the response in various capitals, including Washington, DC. In the spring of 2015, they are renewing this effort with a clearer objective, not just for feedback about the initiative or whether it could gain support. This sub-regional consultative mechanism involving the four big powers and the two Koreas (should North Korea decide to take part) as well as Mongolia, is viewed as the culmination of proposals Seoul has made since 1988 as a middle power in search of great power agreement on how to deal with security in Northeast Asia. In the new initiative there is no hurry as a few functional areas of cooperation, such as nuclear safety and disaster relief, are discussed at a junior diplomatic level at the opening stage. The argument is made that this is no way against the alliance system. Indeed, the focus is on drawing Washington in as co-advocate, revealing that Park in 2013 had proposed that they jointly launch NAPCI without any stress on ownership of this idea by Seoul. While Washington may be hesitant to proceed without Tokyo’s strong interest, Seoul may have been reluctant to broach trilateralism since it would lessen NAPCI’s appeal to Beijing, but, in 2015, Seoul may be awakening to the greater need for this. After pushing for two years to resume CJK trilateralism, which Tokyo came to appreciate as a way to engage Beijing, recent success in this endeavor, after the change of heart by China’s leaders, has strengthened Seoul’s multilateral claims. In contrast to the CJK’s narrow, practical, economic cooperation without big themes, there is hope that NAPCI would center on national security, albeit with secondary areas coming first. Now that Beijing is actively pressing for regionalism centered on itself, Washington should welcome an Asia-Pacific approach led by a trustworthy ally, audiences hear. After all, the absence of such a regional dialogue means that incidents such as the declaration of an ADIZ by China, leading to overlapping air defense zones and new tensions, did not actually result in consultations for fear of legitimizing China’s position. The case for NAPCI seemed stronger since the Xi-Obama summit in late 2014 than a year ago, despite uncertainty about its prospects,
DC audiences raised doubts about the chances for NAPCI, observing that compared to the late 1990s when Seoul sought a similar grouping, conditions have worsened. There is less likelihood of success in influencing North Korea, which many regard as the principal rationale for the grouping, and China would be unlikely to entertain a proposal that could undercut its hopes of resuming the Six-Party Talks as the main regional dialogue grouping. Its insistence that it does not have influence over North Korea and only the United States can change the status quo leaves little reason for hope. Although Russia has long desired a multilateral security framework in this region, its relations with the United States and US allies have deteriorated, while it seems to be hoping for resumption of the fifth working group of the Six-Party Talks as the basis of planning for a regional architecture and is leaning towards North Korea in ways that cast doubt on its role in NAPCI, should that organization materialize. If Moscow and Beijing remain opposed to 5 + 1 (6 with Mongolia) excluding North Korea for now at least and are not doing what is needed for sanctions to work, how will NAPCI alter its calculus on the issue that matters most for regional security? South Koreans stress that on matters such as THAAD and Park’s decision not to go to Moscow on May 9 they do not expect Beijing or Moscow to impose conditions for joining NAPCI and, furthermore, they will entertain no such conditions. Yet, many expect Beijing to treat NAPCI and trilateralism as a zero-sum game for Seoul.
Of course, no discussion of South Korea and Northeast Asian multilateralism could avoid leading to queries about ROK-Japan relations, especially when Abe and Park were coming to DC in rapid succession, and historical minefields are now on everyone’s mind. There is a sense that Seoul’s position has changed to separate security, global issues, and economics from history. Even on history—as the Korean media obsess over Abe’s every word on various occasions this year—there are quiet plans to recognize in both Tokyo and Seoul on June 22 the fiftieth anniversary of normalization as talks on the “comfort women” have also been going forward in the aftermath of the trilateral summit of April 2014. Should they be successful by June 22, this could give a critical impetus to bilateral relations and, even more, to trilateralism with the United States. Questioners, however, doubted such success, given their perceptions of Abe’s intentions and the Korean response to his words. Even if the historical hurdles are overcome in 2015 and NAPCI were to start, the idea that South Korea could somehow bridge strategic differences between the United States and China (as well as Russia and North Korea seemed to some no less improbable than the idea in Option 2 that ASEAN could accomplish this).
Option 4: From Triangular Strategic Cooperation toward NATO of the East
A report released in mid-April on US-Japan-Australia cooperation was the subject of DC discussion. The focus was national security capacity building in Southeast Asia. The exchange centered on the evolution and context of this trilateralism as well as of bilateralism centering on Tokyo and Canberra, the wider implications of this effort for regional relations, and the specific impact of China. Whereas as recently as 2010 much more attention was centered on the US-Japan-ROK alliance triangle, by 2012 the focus of defense ties was turning toward this triangle: 1) China’s maritime challenge in the East China Sea and, even more, in the South China Sea had grown more serious; 2) Japan-South Korea relations had deteriorated, whereas there was no historical problem drawing notice to Australia; and 3) demands for defensive measures and build-ups were coming from Southeast Asian states as well as Japan, whereas South Korea was showing hesitation about some US ideas for regional and even bilateral deterrence, including trilateralism with Japan. It should be noted that Japan’s behavior did not prioritize building a positive atmosphere with South Korea. In contrast, when Abe was prime minister in 2007, again in 2010, 2012, and 2014 Japan reciprocated Australia’s interest in strengthening security ties. The situation in East Timor in 1999, the joint involvement in the Iraqi War from 2003, the pull of counterterrorism and disaster relief, all brought these two maritime states closer.
Seoul’s preoccupation with Pyongyang puts relations with Beijing ahead of those with Tokyo, while Tokyo’s maritime fears extend to a wider perspective on actors who can support collective security in the South China Sea. Seeking to deter China, to reduce the costs of arms acquisitions, and to move beyond exclusive reliance on one ally, Tokyo finds Australia an ideal partner. Along with Washington, it takes a broad geographical view of the Indo-Pacific region, favoring minilateral strategic groupings and regionalism that is not dominated by China. Overlapping interests in Southeast Asia—to build maritime capacity there, to reassure states threatened by China’s aggressive moves there, and to achieve pivots that each state centers on this sub-region—are driving trilateral security cooperation. If Southeast Asian states are docile and ASEAN cannot respond effectively, each sees China as being emboldened and applying more pressure elsewhere. Together, they foresee efforts to boost small and middle states’ maritime domain awareness, to agree on a common operational picture, and to coordinate increased strategic financing, e.g., Japan’s strategic use of ODA. Clearly, 2014-2015 is a new stage with more stress on traditional security, more scope for cooperation, and much more visible signs of trilateralism, especially due to Abe’s initiatives in Japan and with the two