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Efforts to build trust are needed if China and the United States are to ensure that peace reign in the Asia-Pacific region
The economic conditions and security of the Asia-Pacific region are ever changing and will be greatly affected in coming times by three recent developments.
The first is China's continued economic growth and the accompanying fast modernization of its defenses, which have in one way or another changed the balance of military power in the region. After surpassing Japan in 2010 and becoming the world's second largest economy, China's GDP increased to $7.3 trillion last year and is expected to reach nearly $8 trillion this year, more than half that of the United States. As for China's defense budget, it increased to $105 billion this year, the largest amount that any Asian country has put toward that purpose and the second largest in the world, although it is still only a sixth of the size of the US defense budget. China's development of new weapon systems, acquisition of new military capabilities and development of new doctrines have all been the subjects of much media reporting, academic research and policy debate in recent years.
The second development is the US' recent "rebalance toward Asia", a policy that comes as the result of three considerations. The Asia-Pacific region has become the main driver of global economic growth, calling for more US engagement to help its economic recovery and future prosperity. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended, providing the US with opportunities to redirect its resources, redeploy its troops and reorient its policies. And China has modernized its defense forces, changing the balance of power in an area where the US has been dominant for decades. To counterbalance China's rise, some US allies and partners want to see a stronger US presence in the region. The resulting rebalance has caused genuine concern in China. Yet, it's important to remember that the proposed measures will take years to put into effect.
The third new development relates to maritime security issues in East Asia. Disputes over sea territory and maritime rights are not new. In the past, the disputing parties had been able to put such matters to the side in the interest of maintaining peaceful relations. Now, though, as the demand for energy and resources increases, the disputes have become more common. They occur not only between China and its neighbors, but also among those neighboring countries themselves. For example, a dispute has arisen between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea over five islands in the Yellow Sea, as well as the two countries' maritime border. Similar disagreements have emerged between the ROK and Japan over the Dokdo, or Takeshima, islands; between Japan and Russia over the four islands; and among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over islands in the South China Sea. Amid all of these, China is finding itself challenged most by its maritime neighbors.
The three developments, and their interactions, are affecting regional security. China's continued economic growth and the modernization of its defenses are causes of concern to both the US and China's neighbors.
Meanwhile, the US' rebalance toward Asia is being perceived as an attempt to contain China. Despite the policy's having political, diplomatic and economic causes beyond its military causes, it is the latter that receives the most attention. For example, the US has no plans to reduce its defense spending in the Asia-Pacific region, even though it is going to cut its total defense budget by $500 billion.
Thus, China's rise and military modernization and the US' rebalance seem to place both countries in a "security dilemma" in which one's plans to increase security reduce the other's sense of security. The upshot is a decline in trust.
Such a situation makes the security choices of others in the region more difficult. This is particularly true for ASEAN nations, some of which have clashed with China over maritime issues. When the US jumped into disputes involving the South China Sea in 2010 and took the side of ASEAN members by reiterating alliance obligations, forming new partnerships, organizing joint military exercises and issuing statements concerning the sovereignty over parts of the sea, the beneficiaries of these actions were happy to see the superpower coming back to deter China's rise. Now, though, many of the same members have come to worry that this sort of intervention will only harm the good relations they have enjoyed with the biggest economy in the region. The worst situation for Asian-Pacific countries in general, and those in ASEAN in particular, would be to be forced to choose between the US and China.
In short, if the three new developments interact in a harmful way, they could undermine Asia-Pacific security. Given such circumstances, it is especially important that the Chinese and US militaries, as well as those of other countries in the region, do more to work together and cultivate the sorts of trusting relationships that will lead to more cooperation for the security of the region.
The author is director of the Center on China-American Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science.
(China Daily 08/30/2012 page8)