Asian Economic Integration Fuels PRC Frustration With U.S. Alliances

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 12

Chinese General Wang Guanzhong articulated the "New Asian Security Concept" at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue

PRC leaders and media commentary have stepped up criticism of U.S. efforts to strengthen its alliances as counter-productive for the region’s long term security. Deep structural drivers related to China’s pursuit of economic growth underpin these views, making it unlikely Beijing will be easily dissuaded from its efforts to shape the current order. Creative policy making will be needed to address the roots of PRC anxieties in a manner that maintains the interests of China, the United States and its Allies and upholds regional stability and peace.

While the back and forth between the Chinese and U.S. and Japanese speakers at the Shangri-La Dialogue has gained considerable attention, less scrutiny has been paid to the comments by General Wang Guanzhong advocating a “new Asian security concept.” His comments echoed those of Xi Jinping, who outlined a vision of an Asian security order managed by Asian countries at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures (CICA) held on 20-21 May in Shanghai.

In many ways, advocacy of a revised security order to better accord with Chinese preferences is not new. PRC officials first introduced the principles of the new security concept in 1997. Around 2005, Chinese leaders introduced a series of major concepts, including “Harmonious World,” and its derivative, “Harmonious Asia,” to provide a clearer vision of how China hoped to shape the global and regional order to accommodate the country’s rise. The Asian new security concept introduced by Xi at the CICA summit, like the ideas promoted by preceding leaders, proposes the development of political and security relationships, institutions and structures to complement China’s growing economic clout and to replace the U.S.-led system of alliances as the basis of the region’s security architecture.

The sources of China’s growing dissatisfaction with the U.S. alliance system are deep and structural. They have little to do with the personal preferences of PRC leaders. Nor do they stem from reactions to statements by individual leaders or U.S. policies, such as the Rebalance, although these may aggravate Chinese frustrations. Criticism of U.S. “hegemonism” and “Cold War mentality” has a long history, but for years these have been aimed at specific policies, such as arms sales to Taiwan. The latest round of criticism, by contrast, is more generally aimed at structural obstacles to China’s pursuit of economic growth and security. In the eyes of PRC leaders, the U.S.-led system of security alliances and partnerships in Asia is one of the most important of these obstacles.

To be clear, Chinese leaders have not designated the United States an enemy. On the contrary, the urgency behind China’s advocacy of the “new type great power relationship”—a policy ideal of close cooperation between relative peer powers to co-manage contentious issues—demonstrates the extent to which China, as a rising power, has hoped to avoid the onset of a classic security dilemma with United States, the status quo power. China continues to require regional stability to maintain its focus on national development. However, a powerful and regionally integrated China is increasingly finding its security and development needs at odds with the current security order.

Regional Integration Increasingly Key to PRC Growth

The view that China’s growth hinges on its ability to promote regional economic integration is critical to understanding the roots of China’s frustration with the U.S. alliance system. Directives in high level strategy documents such as the 18th Party Congress report and Third Plenum decision, and the establishment of central leading groups focused on systemic reform, underscore the urgency with which PRC leaders continue to regard structural reform as crucial for enabling sustainable economic growth. 

At one of the first meetings of the recently formed National Security Commission (NSC), Xi stated, “Development is the foundation of security. Security is the condition of development. We stress our own but also common security [with other countries].” Through the NSC and other newly formed small leading groups, China’s leaders have sought to enact systemic and structural changes that can facilitate the country’s comprehensive development and improve security both internally and externally (Xinhua, April 15).

As an export-oriented economy, China’s growth increasingly rests on its ability to leverage the rapidly growing markets and abundant resources of Asia through economic integration. By some estimates, one third of Asia’s trade may be intra-regional by 2020 (Business World Online, May 22).  China seeks to deepen Asia’s regional economic integration to realize this potential. Reflecting the importance of this issue, the Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress directed officials in 2013 to “accelerate” the establishment of a “free trade area” with the “periphery region as the basis” (People’s Daily, May 29). At last fall’s Central Work Forum on Diplomacy to the Periphery, Chinese officials designated the periphery a “priority direction” for the nation’s diplomacy (China Brief, November 7, 2013). The directive adds impetus to regional trade and economic cooperation initiatives such as the Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-China economic corridor, the China-Pakistan economic corridor, the Silk Road Economic Belt, the 21st century maritime Silk Road, China-ASEAN free trade area and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (on the Silk Roads, see China Brief, June 4).

Realigning Regional Security with the New Economic Reality

To realize its economic potential, Asia requires stability and security. “Security,” stated Xi at the CICA summit, is the “precondition for development.” PRC media articles point out that without security, Asia “cannot maintain its role as the engine of the world’s economic growth” (Xinhua, May 20).  Chinese leaders have similarly premised the realization of the country’s economic potential on security provided by a stable domestic and international order.

PRC leaders view the development of a security and political architecture centered on Chinese power as a natural complement to the country’s dominance of the regional economy and the most lasting way to realize Asia’s growth potential. In his speech to the CICA Summit, Xi noted that Asia had “come to a crucial stage in security cooperation.” He criticized “outdated thinking from the Cold War” and instead advocated for the need to “innovate our security concept” and “establish a new security cooperation architecture.” Beijing argues in increasingly explicit terms that its size and economic dominance should give it the right to determine the main features of the region’s security architecture. In his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Wang stated, “major countries should shoulder major responsibilities for maintaining security and stability,” while conceding that “medium and smaller countries can also play a role.” He stated China, as a “responsible major country,” intended to do its part to promote security for Asia.

Chinese theorists argue that the contradiction between China’s economic dominance and U.S. military superiority lies at the heart of many security issues in Asia. One typical article argued that the “root cause” of all kinds of security problems in Asia lies “partly in the eastward shift and decentralization of power as a result of globalization.” Asia’s inability to be “self-reliant” encourages many countries to rely on the United States for security (People’s Daily, May 24).

To resolve this issue, PRC leaders advocate the development of an alternative set of structures and mechanisms to better accord with China’s regional economic dominance. A Xinhua article explained that the “Asian new security concept” seeks to establish “new mechanisms” to enable “Asians to manage security issues.” It explained that building such a system is “more in line with the interests of Asian countries” (Xinhua, May 21). Examples cited include the various institutions, dialogues, and other mechanisms related to the Six Party Talks, Shanghai Cooperation Organization and CICA. Xi also highlighted the formulation of a “code of conduct for regional security,” and the establishment of an Asian law enforcement and Asian security emergency center among other measures at the CICA summit (Xinhua, May 21).

U.S. Alliances: Obstacle to Regional Integration?

PRC criticism increasingly depicts the entire system of alliances as counterproductive to the region’s long term security. At the CICA summit, Xi stated that “It is disadvantageous to the common security of the region if military alliances with third parties are strengthened.” Official commentary has been blunter. The strengthening of alliances, noted a representative article, has “sharpened regional contradictions and created tension and antagonism.” This has “interfered with and retarded the Asian regional economic and trade integration process” (People’s Daily, May 11). Some of this concern draws on fears of U.S. containment, as seen in a Xinhua article that stated, “We cannot just have security for one or a few countries while leaving the rest insecure” (Xinhua, May 21). A typical People’s Daily commentary similarly explained that the U.S. effort to enhance its security presence in Asia “binds military allies and partner countries to U.S. strategic interests.” It also “pushes them into the frontline of containing China” and exploits the maritime disputes to “sow discord between China and the countries on its periphery” (People’s Daily, May 5).

China also regards U.S. alliances as a source of threat to stability and security. Commentators frequently blame the United States for encouraging its allies and partners to provoke China over territorial disputes. This is especially true of U.S. alliances with countries that have antagonistic relations with China. Beijing finds the U.S. alliance with Japan more problematic than it does the U.S. alliance with countries like Thailand, with which China enjoys far more stable relations. In China’s eyes, an alliance with the United States emboldens countries to provoke Beijing on sovereignty disputes, threatening instability and potentially conflict. Antagonism with neighboring powers like Japan and the Philippines also threatens to escalate into a war that could draw in the United States, a disastrous possibility Beijing dreads. Reflecting these frustrations, one Xinhua commentary article bitterly noted that “the United States has not taken any concrete measures to check its defiant allies from confronting China” (Xinhua, April 26). U.S. efforts to reassure its allies through the Rebalance intensify these anxieties. The same article claimed that strengthening U.S. alliances can “achieve nothing other than buttressing an unstable status quo.” 

Chinese critics also contend that the U.S. system of alliances and partnerships is too limited in capacity and narrow in its focus to adequately address the range and complexity of security issues in Asia. PRC media routinely criticize as destabilizing U.S. efforts to deter North Korea through military exercises and presence, advocating instead a reliance on dialogue through the Six Party Talks (Xinhua, March 25). Articles also question the ability of the United States and its allies to manage non-traditional threats. Regarding transnational crime, terrorism and other threats, a recent Xinhua article claimed that the United States had “failed to win confidence that its power could, or at least is willing to, protect the interests of Asians from disaster” (Xinhua, April 26).

All of these grievances lead to a larger point. In Beijing’s eyes, the U.S.-led security architecture is outliving the usefulness it formerly provided by ensuring regional stability. Instead, China views the alliance system as increasingly incapable of providing lasting security and itself a potential source of threat. In the words of one Xinhua commentary, the “rhetoric of a peaceful Asia will be empty as long as the Cold War security structure remains” (Xinhua, May 21).

The deep sources of opposition explain in part why U.S. leaders encounter such difficulty in trying to reassure Beijing that a strengthening of the U.S. security architecture need not pose a threat. As an example, Chinese commentators linked Secretary Hagel’s comments at the Shangri-La Dialogue on US contributions to regional security to his criticism of Chinese actions. A typical Xinhua piece criticized Hagel’s promotion of “freedom of navigation and respect for international law” as “rhetoric” which concealed a “unilateral approach that is in line with the U.S. security philosophy.” The same article concluded that the security approach advocated by the U.S. and its allies “bring risks to the region” and “drives discord among Asian nations” (Xinhua, May 31).

Conclusion: Creative Policy-Making Required

To date, most observers have interpreted Xi’s pursuit of structural and systemic change in terms of domestic policy. The CICA speech and General Wang’s message at the Shangri-La Dialogue confirm that the same directives carry profound implications for China’s foreign policy as well.

Chinese leaders seek structural reform to both the domestic and international order. Because these reforms are viewed as necessary for the country’s continued development and survival, Beijing is unlikely to abandon these demands. On the contrary, the imperative to sustain development will likely add pressure to realize these changes over time. For these reasons, China can be expected to deepen efforts to build an alternative set of institutions, mechanisms and structures that better suit its strategic needs, while supporting elements of the current order that do not threaten PRC interests and avoiding confrontation with the United States. The PRC hope is that the new order, more strongly rooted in the source of Asia’s economic power, will demonstrate superior vitality and over time render a U.S. role superfluous. As a hedge, China also continues to develop powerful counter intervention capabilities should efforts to peacefully resolve this issue of strategic divergence fail.

The United States is thus likely to find its system of alliances and partnerships in Asia an increasing source of contention with China. Senior U.S. policy makers have made clear that the United States has legitimate and important strategic interests in Asia. Moreover, the United States retains considerable strength as the dominant power in the region, even if some of its relative advantages have declined in recent years. This leaves China, the United States and its allies with increasingly complex and difficult decisions. Reassuring Beijing requires the U.S. to either weaken or redefine its alliance system to accommodate China’s security preferences. Reassuring allies requires a greater U.S. willingness to confront China in sovereignty disputes and other issues. Fortunately, all countries recognize the stakes of mishandling this critical question and the importance of cooperation to address these difficult issues. Nevertheless, China and the United States and its allies will need to step up creative policy making to balance these competing concerns and ensuring lasting peace and stability for the region.