Daniel W. Drezner

Pssst…. China…. it’s called the “security dilemma”

So China has not been shy over the past few months in expressing its territorial aspirations, going so far as to imprint them in new passports.  Now on the one hand, this is a predictable reaction to the U.S. pivot from last year.  On the other hand…. well, for a country that ostensibly thinks a ...

So China has not been shy over the past few months in expressing its territorial aspirations, going so far as to imprint them in new passports.  Now on the one hand, this is a predictable reaction to the U.S. pivot from last year.  On the other hand…. well, for a country that ostensibly thinks a lot about realpolitik, they sure haven’t internalized the notion of cooperating under a security dilemma.  Indeed, two recent stories suggest that Chinese behavior is disrupting long-held norms in the Pacific Rim. 

In the South China Morning Post, Greg Torode reports that much of ASEAN is getting fed up with Beijing

China is set to face mounting challenges from the grouping over the South China Sea as Cambodia’s controversial year as Asean host and chair comes to an end. As difficult as it may have been, Cambodia’s year may be as a good as it gets for Beijing – in the short term at least….

An announcement on Sunday from host Cambodia that Asean’s leaders had formally agreed not to internationalise the issue "from now on" sparked a flood of questions. Asean-China talks would be the sole forum, spokesman Kao Kim Hourn added.

Given that leaders – including US President Barack Obama and allies from Japan, the US and Australia – were converging on Phnom Penh determined to raise the need to lower South China Sea frictions, it was a remarkable agreement, and a victory for Beijing’s backroom lobbying.

But the consensus hailed by Cambodia lasted less than a day. The Philippine delegation, led by President Benigno Aquino, cried foul, warning there was no such deal and insisting on its rights to seek international redress if it felt that its national sovereignty was threatened.

In the rhetoric of Washington, its re-engagement across Asean is part of an effort to "shape" China’s rise, forcing it to conform to international norms. With considerable discretion, it has buttressed efforts among Asean countries to co-ordinate and organise diplomatic responses to Chinese challenges.

While the Philippines stood up publicly this week, others were helping in the background, for example. ….

Just four years ago, China had successfully kept Asean nations officially quiet on the subject. The events of the last week have shown that, despite considerable efforts, the calculations are now much more complex.

If ASEAN is known for anything, it’s for developing bland consensus statements.  That’s a key component of the ASEAN way.  If that norm is breaking down, then China is having a serious impact on the behavior of member countries — and not in a way that benefits Beijing’s interests. 

The other interesting story is Martin Fackler’s story in the New York Times about Japan’s naval activities in the Pacific Rim.  Shorter Fackler:   Japan is getting more active in the region.  Now what’s interesting about this isn’t Japan’s behavior; one would expect Tokyo to counter Beijing.  No, what’s interesting is how other countries in the region — most of whom had a very bad experience with Japan during the Second World War — are reacting.  Which is to say, they’re pretty cool with Japan exercising their naval muscle:

In a measure of the geopolitical changes roiling the region… concerns about any resurgent Japanese militarism appear to be fading in some countries embroiled in their own territorial disputes with China, like Vietnam and the Philippines, the scene of fierce fighting during the war.

Analysts there and elsewhere in the region said their countries welcomed, and sometimes invited, Japan’s help.

“We have already put aside our nightmares of World War II because of the threat posed by China,” said Rommel Banlaoi, a security expert at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research in Manila.

On a recent morning, 22 coast guard officials from a dozen Asian and African nations joined a training cruise around Tokyo Bay aboard a sleek, white Japanese Coast Guard cutter. The visitors snapped photos of the engine room, the electronics-studded bridge and the 20-millimeter cannon. Before the cutter left port, the foreign contingent and the Japanese crew stood at attention on deck facing each other, then bowed deeply.

“Japan is joining the United States and Australia in helping us face China,” said Mark Lim, an administrative officer from the Philippine Coast Guard who joined the cruise.

Japan is widely viewed as being the only nation in the region with a navy powerful enough to check China….

The Japanese Navy took a big step toward opening up in 2009 by holding a joint military drill with Australia — its first such exercise with a nation besides the United States. It has since joined a number of multinational naval drills in Southeast Asia, and in June held its first joint maneuver with India.

Hostility towards any Japanese great power behavior has been another longtime diplomatic staple of the Asia/Pacific.  That norm also appears to be eroding fast. 

Does this make any difference?  Well, yes.  As Fackler notes, Japan has the 6th largest defense budget in the world.  India, Australia and South Korea aren’t exactly defense midgets either.  The more that Beijing pushes the rest of the Pacific Rim into the arms of the United States, the more Washington’s job becomes one of policy coordinator rather than policy provider.  In other words, China’s policies are making the pivot cheaper.  To repeat a point I made earlier this year

In [Wang Jisi’s essay about how the Chinese leadership views the U.S.], the United States is the chief architect of any misfortune or policy reversal that affects the Middle Kingdom.  Wang notes the U.S. "pivot" without speculating why countries like South Korea, Vietnam, or even Myanmar might be so eager to welcome Washington with open arms.  If Chinese policymakers truly believe that the U.S. is solely to blame for these turn of events, then they will likely continue to act in ways that alienate their neighbors in the Pacific Rim, thereby exacerbating the geopolitical straight-jacket that they disliked in the first place. 

Am I missing anything? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola