The Challenge of the ‘Asia Rebalance’ for China

Photo Credit: Huffington Post

By Danni Song, Peer Reviewer

As China’s economy has maintained rapid growth for two decades, its political influence in the Asia-Pacific region has also steadily expanded. However, China’s fenfa youwei (assertiveness), the consequence of an augmentation of national power and a series of policy decisions in Beijing’s, seems to have backfired on China’s position in the region. These complications have been particularly amplified as the U.S. sets in motion its policy to ‘rebalance’ toward Asia. Ongoing, frequent interactions between the United States, regional actors, and multilateral institutions pose a myriad of complex and multi-dimensional obstacles for China in achieving its long-term goal—the ‘China Dream’.

The economic cornerstone of the ‘Asia Rebalance’ policy constitutes “40 percent of the global GDP”; it complements existing bilateral FTAs and FDI, and, through an expansion of membership, is also likely to reshape rules and norms of international investment if implemented properly.[i] The threshold and cost for China to trade with and invest in the TPP member countries would thus become high. Some have expressed doubt regarding the U.S. ability to carry out the policy due to budgetary concerns and the upcoming executive office transition in the near future. However, as Scott W. Harold reminds us, the ‘rebalance’, due to its “low-cost and durable nature”, is likely to sustain itself, regardless of who takes office in the White House in 2017. The policy is currently “entering into stable, routine bureaucratic practice”, and is unlikely to distract significant resources from elsewhere.[ii]

The next decade promises to give birth to a newfound rivalry between the US and China. Distinct disagreements between Beijing and Washington with respect to regional affairs will increase, rather than decline. This also arguably raises the likelihood of an armed conflict between the two parties, particularly as the U.S. becomes deeply involved in territorial disputes between China and the three major American allies in Asia. The U.S. continues to increase its military capabilities dedicated to the region, accelerating and modernizing security cooperation with allies and partners.[iii]

Tokyo’s growing “hard hedge” against Beijing weakens China’s economic interdependence with Japan, decreasing its political leverage over Tokyo.[iv] Japan has become a critical component in containing China’s regional power and maritime influence by playing an active role in the ‘Asia Rebalance’ strategy. Japan’ new National Defense Program Guidelines and Medium Term Defense Program allow the country more mobility and flexibility for its Self Defense Force to get involved in regional affairs.[v] Meanwhile, Japan’s engagements with regional partners have spanned economic, political, ideological, and defense arenas.[vi]

Seoul has been ambiguous vis-à-vis China’s recent assertiveness, taking an ambivalent position regarding Beijing’s security concerns, such as the deployment of THAAD. South Korea’s desire for China’s support on its policy towards Pyongyang stabilizes bilateral relations, and could hamper the formation of a comprehensive U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance.[vii] Japan and South Korea lack security cooperation due to historical disputes, the Dokdo/Takeshima islet, and challenges in domestic politics. These obstacles can be overcome, yet it would be difficult and grueling;[viii] reconciliation rests on whether the benefits of cooperation trump the risks of further antagonizing Beijing and/or Pyongyang.

Although the change in the military balance between Beijing and Taipei altered Taiwan’s calculus on independence, the momentum of cross-straits relations has slowed down, and the resistance to unification within Taiwan has increased.[ix] Economic interdependence served as a stabilizer between China and Taiwan, but has now led to concerns within Taiwan’s domestic politics.[x] Tsai Ing-wen, who is also more concerned with security compared to her Kuomintang counterpart, has reinforced the obstructions of cross-strait relations. Taiwan is also a component of the ‘rebalance’, as such, Washington and Taipei could enter a closer cooperation during Tsai’s presidency.

Michael Green envisioned a possible path to a “Federate Defense in Asia”, in which he proposed a system of collective security that could be built on the existing “U.S. alliances and beyond”.[xi] Ideally, in contrast to the post-war “hubs-and-spokes” system, in which U.S. cooperated with individual actors, a federated defense system would connect “allies and partners with the one another.”[xii] Yet due to the unique histories, divergent national interests, and domestic politics of the potential participants in such a strategy, the U.S. is aware that the foundation for multilateral cooperation in Asia is thin. However, as Ely Ratner proposes, by crafting a common security future with individual nations and addressing their security concerns, the U.S. could ensure that cooperation is accepted and supported through a top-down manner and increase the political sustainability of the partnership.[xiii]

As the ‘Asia Rebalance’ continues to pick up momentum, the use of economic, diplomatic, and military power will bring the ‘economies of scales’ effect. When properly marketed and guaranteed, the policy will pose a formidable challenge to the continued rise of China. The policy has proven to draw closer cooperation with regional actors who have conflicting interests with China or fear its domination. In the long-run, the greater challenge to Beijing comes from the possibility that more regional actors could rally around the U.S. and/or Japan to encircle China. Even outside of East Asia, the U.S. and Japan’s active engagements with ASEAN and India may represent early signs of such a trend.

[i] Scott W. Harold, “Is the Pivot Doom? The Resilience of America’s Strategic ‘rebalance’,” The Washington Quarterly 37 (2015): 88.

[ii] Ibid, 85-99.

[iii] Jeffery Hornung, Modeling a Strong U.S.-Japan Alliance (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2015).

[iv] Jeffrey Hornung, “Japan’s Growing Hard Hedge Against China,” Asian Security 10 (2014): 103.

[v] Emma Chanlett-Avery, et al., Japan-U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2015): 8-12.

[vi] Hornung, “Japan’s Growing Hard Hedge Against China,” 103-104; Avery, Manyin, et al., Japan-U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress,11-12.

[vii] Mark E. Manyin, et al., U.S.-South Korea Relations (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2016): 4.

[viii] Ji Young Kim, “Escaping the Vicious Cycle: Symbolic Politics and History Disputes Between South Korea and Japan,” Asian Perspective 38 (2014): 53-54.

[ix] Scott Kastner, “Is the Taiwan Straits Still a Flashpoint?” International Security 40 (2015): 74.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Michael Green, Federated Defense in Asia (Washington DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2014): 1.

[xii] Victor Cha, “Powerplay: Origins of the U.S. Alliance System in Asia,” International Security 34 (2009): 158-196.

[xiii] Ely Ratner, Resident Power: Building a Politically Sustainable U.S. Military Presence in Southeast Asia and Australia (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 2013).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.