The U.S. and China recently held a summit meeting at Mar-a-Lago, Florida. Many issues currently plague U.S.-China relations, such as trade, the South China Sea, and cyber-security. However, the issue of North Korea clearly dominates the issues now potentially derailing U.S.-China ties. Unfortunately, as important as North Korea is at the moment, it is but an ancillary topic compared to the issue of how China views overall U.S. intentions towards it in Asia. Until this underlying Chinese strategic concern is addressed, there will be no resolution of the North Korean issue.
With the recent U.S. missile strikes against Syria for its alleged chemical weapons usage, there has been speculation that the true intended recipients of this message are China and North Korea. The thinking is that both China and North Korea will see that the U.S. is willing to inflict the same lesson on North Korea. If true, then it’s critical to point out several differences here.
Syria is not located near the epicenter of international trade and the world’s major nuclear states. Southeast Asia is certainly vital to world trade as it is essentially the gateway for natural resources departing the Middle East and Africa and making their way towards some of the world’s most resource-dependent economies, namely China, Japan, and South Korea. However, the destination of these resources highlights the true indispensability of Northeast Asia to the global economy as a whole.
This area is home to the world’s second, third, and fourth largest economies in the world, respectively. In many respects, such as international trade and purchasing power parity (PPP), China is already the world’s largest economy. As has been stated numerous times before, a military conflict in this area would have far-reaching regional and global repercussions.
Even China itself has admitted that a stable, peaceful regional environment is vital to its continued ascendancy. As globalization’s past leading proponent, the U.S. may ironically be a victim of its own post-Cold War success, as the relentless spread of globalization is precisely what has allowed China, Japan, and South Korea all to reach their current commanding heights positions leading the global economy.
In order to give even further context to the North Korean dilemma and how it impacts U.S.-China relations, it’s vital to remember that most states in Asia have both quite long histories and associated memories. This has played itself out in several instances within the past year alone.
First, we have the Filipino Ambassador to the U.S.’ reference to U.S. President William Howard Taft’s “little brown brothers” sentiment towards The Philippines over a hundred years ago. This was a prelude to The Philippines’ announced foreign policy re-balance between the U.S. and China currently.
Next, Finland was among the first European countries to diplomatically recognize China and actually the first to establish a bilateral trade agreement with China in 1953. As a result, Finland is now a beachhead of sorts for China in terms of furthering not only trade relations between the two states themselves, but diplomatic ties between China and the EU as a whole.
Lastly, we have the Syrian peace talks currently being held in Astana. Although the talks are at times difficult, they are nevertheless viewed as absolutely critical by the talks’ major proponents, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Kazakhstan was ostensibly chosen as the location for these talks because, at several points in its rich history, it was part of the Russian Empire (later Former Soviet Union), as well as the Persian and Ottoman Empires, respectively. This theoretically signifies that the interests of any one proponent of the talks do not necessarily outweigh those of the other two.
This last example is also an important lesson to learn regarding China and its interests on the Korean peninsula via the now-stalled Six-Party Talks. It’s also important to remember that it was U.S. miscalculation during the Korean War which initially led to China’s entry on the side of North Korea. More fundamentally, the two Koreas are still technically at war.
As their respective allies, this harms the long-term sustainability of positive U.S.-China relations, despite the salve of business ties. These ties do not override fundamental geopolitical considerations. The U.S. recognized China in order to leverage it against the Former Soviet Union. What exactly are U.S. motivations currently? Are they to similarly leverage India against China now, for example?
A new model of great power relations between the U.S. and China needs to be defined, and then actually implemented. It appears that this already may be happening with the U.S. apparently adopting China’s doctrine of “No Conflict, No Confrontation, Mutual Respect, and Win-Win Cooperation”.
The salient point here is that issues such as North Korea won’t be solved until China’s underlying security concerns are addressed, namely what exactly are U.S. intentions towards it in Asia? Will the U.S. pursue a policy towards China of containment, engagement, or “congagement”? More pertinently, does the U.S. consider China a “strategic partner”, “strategic competitor”, adversary, etc.?
Because no state in Asia wants to be forced to choose between China and the U.S., a possible solution is a power-sharing agreement, proposed by Australian National University Professor Hugh White. White proposes that a concert of regional powers, to include China, the U.S., Japan, and India, is the long-term solution for stability in Asia. This is reminiscent of the Concert of Europe, responsible for upholding stability on the European continent from Napoleon’s eventual defeat until the outbreak of World War I, a hundred years later.
While the details of such an arrangement may be debatable, it certainly has the potential, at least, to address the major security concerns of the regional Asian players. In addition to issues such as North Korea, a power-sharing arrangement in Asia would have ramifications with respect to the South China Sea as well.
The South China Sea example is critical as China’s double cancellation proposal (no further DPRK missile launches in exchange for no U.S.-South Korea military exercises) may have been designed to elicit a negative U.S. response and thereby expose the U.S.’ true motives in Asia (in China’s mind). These motives would include the U.S.’ conflation (deliberate or otherwise) of civilian freedom of navigation with military freedom of navigation. Additionally, a power-sharing agreement would send a strong signal to weaker, external states like France, which is also expanding its own regional military presence.