Today's date:
Spring 2014

Only A Grand Compromise Between US And China Can Reduce East Asian Tensions

Yoon Young-Kwan is the former Foreign Minister of South Korea­.

SEOUL—The centennial year of the outbreak of World War I, 2014, is likely to witness more turbulent East Asian politics than any other time in recent decades. The rising power, China, seems determined to challenge the status quo on security matters in the absence of any serious international efforts to find a formula for dealing with the problem through dialogue. After advancing it’s territorial claims against the Philippines and Japan successfully over the last two years, China has now stepped up efforts to strengthen control over the South China Sea.

For example, the Chinese government declared that, effective January 1 of this year, foreign fishing vessels should obtain approval from China’s local government, Hainan, before fishing or surveying in two thirds of the South China Sea claimed by China. The US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki commented on China’s act as “a provocative and potentially dangerous act.” This happened less than two months after China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone and the ensuing flight of two US B-52 bombers through the declared air defense zone. Two US allies, South Korea and Japan also challenged China’s declaration of ADIZ, ratcheting up international tension heightened a notch.

These worsening security relations in East Asia are particularly worrisome because no political leaders in major states are ready to act decisively with a vision for making a lasting peace in the region. Most of them are captivated by narrowly defined national interest of their own. If the current trend continues, there will be high probability that unfolding of events will continue to drift dangerously, and in the worst case, even end up in a catastrophic situation.

That will be detrimental for all states in East Asia, but particularly for China. Rising tension will make China’s neighbors nervous and cause them to depend more on the US for their own security. This, in turn, will lead to a more prominent presence in East Asia of the US—precisely what China has sought to avoid with its actions.

Thus, China’s efforts to enhance its influence as a rising power in an assertive way will actually backfire and result in an unintended encirclement of China by her neighbors. The irony is that this “security dilemma” was exactly what happened in Europe when Kaiser Wilhelm II, confident of rising power of Germany, began to practice a muscular diplomacy in 1890. The more prudent way of expanding China’s influence would be through buying the hearts of East Asian people and deepening economic interdependence rather than through showing off its military power impetuously.

In addition, pushing Japan too far in disputes over the East China Sea may backfire in the long run. Japan’s political leaders are pushing for a remilitarization program in recent years in fear of perceived threat of rising China. If they feel more threatened by China and less assured of the US will to defend Japan, Japanese political leaders may try to be autonomous from the US and even consider a nuclear option as the last resort. This would be a dangerous development toward a chaotic situation in which political leaders will find it very difficult to control the unfolding of international events.

This is why the US should do more than passively responding to the daily events in East Asia. Most of all, it should try to find a new formula for peaceful coexistence with China. Even though China may demand a more equal status in both economic and military fields through such catchphrases as forming “a new type of major power relationship,” the US should not reject outright the idea of discussing a new formula for peaceful coexistence with China.

Instead, the US should try to strike a grand compromise. It may offer help for more representation of China in international economic institutions, reflecting the rise of China’s economic power. China has been complaining that her voice was underrepresented despite the rapid rise of its own economic capability. In return, China may make a promise to respect existing norms and institutions for international economic cooperation instead of trying to challenge them. After all, China has been benefitting and will continue to benefit from actively participating in the existing international institutions even though it did not participate in the process of establishing them.

In the security field, the US should be more attentive to China’s concerns. For example, Taiwan has long been the most important concern for China. The US may offer a reduction of arms sales to Taiwan, considering the favorable cross-straits relations these days. This need not necessarily jeopardize the US-Taiwan relationship but, instead, send a very positive signal to China contributing to mutual confidence-building. In return, China would promise not to challenge the status quo on the issues of the East China Sea and South China Sea.

China may think it was Japan who challenged the status quo first through the Japanese government’s purchase of the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands. However, if China pushes Japan too far on these territorial disputes, it will make US intervention inevitable and ignite another round of dangerous escalation of conflicts. China’s efforts to strengthen its control over South China Sea will also bring about a similar result since it touches the critical issue of securing safe transit of trade goods for Japan and South Korea, allies of the US.

This year, political leaders in East Asia had better keep the lessons of World War I in their minds. It is high time for them, especially leaders of the US and China, to exit from the politics of complacency and act decisively to strike a grand compromise for a lasting peace.