Accessibility links

Breaking News

Asia: Trouble In The Neighborhood?

China is rapidly making use of its growing economic strength to increase political and military clout. The impact of this is already evident in much of the Asia-Pacific region.

It has become a truism among some students of international politics that the rise of China in the early 21st century has parallels as a major development with the emergence of Germany as a world power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In China's case, economic growth has not only fattened its foreign-currency reserves and generated increased consumer demand at home, but also produced an increasingly voracious appetite for raw materials and export markets. Like the imperialist powers of more than a century ago that were in a similar position, China is expanding not only its commercial penetration of distant countries like Australia, Sudan, and Brazil, but also its military capabilities. The U.S. Defense Department recently issued a report calling attention to a growing potential Chinese threat in East Asia.

Extended Reach
China's developing military reach has been evident in its current joint military exercises with Russia, which began on 18 August. The drill, which ended on 25 August, was called Peace Mission 2005 and sought to simulate intervention in a third country that was threatened by severe domestic unrest. It involved about 10,000 soldiers, most of whom were Chinese, as well as 140 naval ships and submarines, Russian Tu-22M "Backfire" long-range bombers, and Tu-95 "Bear" intercontinental bombers.

Although Russian and Chinese officials have gone to great pains to stress that the exercises were no more than a peacemaking effort and are not directed at any specific third country, many observers believe otherwise. Japan's NHK international broadcasting service, for example, reported from Beijing on 24 August that the drill will enable the Chinese to learn the "latest Russian methods" that could be used to thwart a possible U.S. intervention should China decide to settle scores with Taiwan. Most Western editorial comment on the exercises has noted that the drill's purpose is to serve notice to Washington that Moscow and Beijing will not accept American military supremacy in the Far East in the long run.

It remains to be seen how far Russia will prove willing to go in helping an increasingly assertive China. On the one hand, Beijing is Moscow's leading foreign market for arms sales. The presence of the Backfires and Bears in Peace Mission is widely seen as a working demonstration of goods for sale that are much more sophisticated than would be required for intervening in a third country to help quell domestic unrest.
Whereas the countries of the region are generally happy to do business with a growing Chinese economy, they are not likely to welcome Beijing's growing strategic clout as an unmitigated blessing.

Moscow and Beijing are, moreover, partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), together with four Central Asian states. The SCO is one of several regional groupings that China is fostering that do not include the United States. The SCO, in fact, recently called for Washington to take its troops out of Uzbekistan. Beijing likes to use the term "strategic partnership" to describe the SCO, meaning long-term cooperation. That organization has, however, sometimes been described as a club of dictators that has little practical importance. One observer recalled the words of the Austrian statesman Clemens Prince von Metternich regarding the Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia, and Russia at the end of the Napoleonic wars, which he called as "a loud-sounding nothing."

Russia, moreover, might choose at some point to reevaluate its policies toward China. During the Cold War, former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon and national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski observed at different times that there are bound to be tensions between two such large and culturally different countries sharing a long common border as Russia and China, regardless of the ideological colorings of their respective regime. This is, both men argued, a simple geopolitical fact. Is it now too unlikely to suppose that at some point various political or military figures in Moscow might question the wisdom of selling sophisticated weapons to a dynamic country that could again become a rival? And one does not have to look too deeply into some of the Russian press to find voices that already caution against a possible long-term threat to Russian control over Siberia by a country of 1.3 billion people on the other side of the border.

A New Community Of Friends
China has also turned its attention to other regional groupings besides the SCO as a way of extending its influence. Beijing is notably a strong supporter of the inaugural East Asian Summit that is slated to take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in December 2005. Invited are the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Japan, South Korea, and India -- but not the United States. The purpose of the gathering is to discuss setting up a East Asian Community (EAC). An article in the July-August issue of the "Far Eastern Economic Review" notes that many in Washington feel that the EAC "is, in fact, a Chinese-led attempt to demonstrate that Asia no longer wants the U.S. to call the shots in [the] region."

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has already made it clear that Beijing regards setting up a free-trade area as the central task of the EAC. He has also suggested that regional think tanks come up with a "blueprint" for security integration. In short, it appears that China wants the EAC to be long on substance and willing to take its cues from Beijing.

This might prove wishful thinking. Whereas the countries of the region are generally happy to do business with a growing Chinese economy, they are not likely to welcome Beijing's growing strategic clout as an unmitigated blessing. This is particularly true of China's old rivals like Japan and Vietnam, but also of other states that simply do not want to see the emergence of any regional superpower on their doorstep.

Furthermore, making any kind of Far Eastern regional grouping cohesive and effective will be no easy task, as some comparisons with the EU make clear. First of all, East Asia, unlike the founding states of what it now the EU, has no common political, cultural, and religious tradition to build on, comparable to that of the Greek and Roman world and the Holy Roman Empire.
The drill's purpose may be to serve notice to Washington that Moscow and Beijing will not accept American military supremacy in the Far East in the long run.

Second, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once wrote that if today's European and trans-Atlantic worlds are a modern phenomenon linked by a strong network of institutions, the Far East more likely resembles Europe of a century ago, where assertive national states vied with each other for power and influence in a very delicate balance. Japan and India, for example, clearly see themselves as competitors of a rising China and not as its subordinates.

And third, one reason why ASEAN has managed to last and expand its membership for nearly four decades is that it seeks the lowest common denominator among its members and avoids controversies and grand schemes. It functions primarily through its meetings and summits rather than through institutions and regulations like the EU. It would be difficult to envision any new organization that includes not only ASEAN's 10 members of greatly varying political hues, but also major states like China, Japan, India, and South Korea, developing in the foreseeable future into even an Asian version of the EC of the 1980s.

See also:

Russia: Joint Military Exercises With China A Result Of New Strategic Partnership

China Rediscovers Its Maritime Heritage

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.