China’s Investment in Beijing-Centered 21st Century Multilateralism


One of the mistakes of American foreign policy over the last several decades was to not heavily invest in, build, and fortify serious multilateral security and economic institutions among Asian nations.
America has not really taken APEC seriously and on the security front has long chosen to rely on bilateral arrangements between the U.S. and every nation we care about in Asia rather than trying to sew them together in a broader network. One exception to this has been occasional military exercises involving U.S., Japanese, Australian, and occastionally Korean forces — but generally, America’s strategy has been to secure stability in Asia through a set of robust bilateral arrangements rather than a multilateral structure, as in NATO.
One of the interesting consequences of this strategy is that it puts little pressure on the governments in these regions to mature very far beyond their dependence on U.S. forces. It also allows them to bully each other over long term cultural and historical disputes, knowing that at the end of the day that they can get away with various manipulations of the historical record — and this goes for Japan, China, and Korea — because America provides an ultimate buffer between them when it comes to any hot conflict.
China, however, may be leap-frogging America’s anachronistic and inefficient set of bilateral deals by rooting the first serious efforts in some time of a China-centric multilateralism in the region. China has called for an annual East Asian Economic Summit and the establishment of and East Asian Community that could very well become the dominant structural fabric of Northeast and Southeast Asia.
Yes, there are other networks and forums — including the ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN plus three, and there have been efforts at economic insitution-building like former Malaysian Prime Minister’s East Asian Economic Caucus. And of course, there is APEC that seems to be barely kicking anymore.
But China seems to know that there is a genuine opportunity in instituion-building among a great cross-section of regional stakeholders. Frankly, this kind of diplomacy — as we once forged together in Europe — is exactly what Asia has needed for a long time, and in my view, the U.S. should have been at the helm of this process. Unfortunately, we have been tethered down by the constraints of our own bilateral relations, afraid of becoming less significant to our partner countries if alternative arrangements were introduced.
Here is an interesting excerpt from a Washington Post article titled “China’s Quiet Rise Casts Wide Shadow” by Edward Cody. It’s a long tract, so I won’t italicize:
The shift in status, increasingly clear over the past year, has changed the way Chinese officials view their country’s international role as well as the way other Asians look to Beijing for cues. In many ways, China has started to act like a traditional big power, tending to its regional interests and pulling smaller neighbors along in its wake.
The new Chinese role has been evident recently in international efforts to deal with North Korea’s declared nuclear arsenal. When Kim Jong Il’s government declared Feb. 10 that it was suspending participation in Chinese-sponsored six-nation nuclear talks, the question that arose immediately in Asian capitals and beyond was: What will China do about it?
Japan, whose economy surpasses China’s by a large margin, in some ways has been the Asian country most uncomfortable with China’s rising stature. The oil sources and sea lanes increasingly seen as vital by China and its traders have long been viewed the same way by Japan. In that light, Japan’s government has tightened strategic cooperation with the United States, and in December, it issued a 10-year defense program that identified China as a potential threat.
Chinese officials and foreign policy specialists emphasized in interviews that they had no intention of challenging the U.S. role as Asia’s main military power, a fact of life here since World War II. U.S. power was on vivid display in East Asia after the Dec. 26 tsunami in southern Asia, with a U.S. carrier group dispatching helicopters to deliver food and medicine to hard-hit Indonesian towns while China’s navy was nowhere on the horizon.
But with 1.3 billion people, 3.7 million square miles of territory and a $1.4 trillion economy, China is the rising regional leader in other fields. This view has come into focus particularly over the last year, when U.S. diplomacy has seemed preoccupied with Iraq or anti-terrorism and China increasingly has asserted its pre-eminence.
“There is now this feeling that we have to consult the Chinese,” said Abdul Razak Baginda of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center. He added, “We have to accept some degree of Chinese leadership, particularly in light of the lack of leadership elsewhere.”
From Outsiders to Insiders
China’s leadership has become visible in small but telling ways. Premier Wen Jiabao was clearly the star, for instance, at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit conference in Laos in November. Lower-ranking ASEAN diplomats have begun to turn to Chinese colleagues for guidance during international meetings, according to a senior foreign diplomat with long experience at such Asian gatherings.
“I was struck by how naturally, even at the working level, the other Asians looked to China and how naturally China played that role,” the diplomat said, noting that only a few years ago, Chinese diplomats were viewed as outsiders.
The change also comes across in bigger and more formal ways. In particular, China has taken the lead in organizing an East Asian summit conference for next November that, according to Chinese and other observers, will formalize Chinese regional leadership in several aspects.
A senior Chinese diplomat said it had not been decided whether the United States will be invited to attend and, if so, in what capacity. That the question of U.S. participation is even on the table dramatizes the shift in Asia’s diplomatic landscape.
As envisioned by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the summit deliberately frames participation on a country-by-country basis, dispersing ASEAN’s combined weight and enhancing China’s role as first among equals. “It’s very subtle, but it could be very important,” the senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official said.
The ASEAN countries — Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — increasingly have begun to deal with China individually rather than as a bloc. As a result, an association that began with U.S. encouragement in 1967 in large measure to fend off Communist Chinese influence has evolved into a forum through which China exercises its regional leadership.
Other examples of Chinese leadership include the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security forum comprising China, Russia and four former Soviet republics along China’s northwest borders. As a part of this grouping, China’s formerly standoffish military recently held anti-terrorism exercises with Kazakhstan and plans exercises next fall with the Russian military.
But China’s new face has been most apparent in its dealings with the ASEAN countries, mainly because of the economic equation. At China’s initiative, for instance, ASEAN countries and China in December agreed to create a free-trade zone by 2010, which would further integrate neighboring countries into China’s orbit. (end)
I don’t believe that China’s diplomatic success should necessarily be feared or should inspire a new round of Project for the New American Century-style letters calling for containment of China.
But it would be a serious mistake to underestimate China in today’s global climate, and secondly — what has been missing in my view from Bush’s foreign policy is a serious and coherent strategy that is going to promote principled and stabilizing American engagement with the world.
Engagement means more than fighting wars and occupying small nations. There is a long list of other tools of diplomacy and “global presence” that need serious attention from this administration and the Congress.
And the Millennium Challenge Fund is not the silver bullet.
— Steve Clemons
(ed. note: I cannot hyperlink many items to this post because of the place I am writing in Hawaii and will try to add them later. SCC)