Last week, East Asia witnessed a whirlwind of high-level ASEAN-plus meetings in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to discuss regional security issues. Tensions over disputed waters in the South China Sea especially have kept the region on the cusp of crisis.
The maritime standoff between China and the Philippines at the Scarborough Shoal reef area in April served as a strong reminder that the region lacks commonly agreed standards for dispute settlement.
Although formulating a joint code of conduct for the South China Sea may help to build mutual trust and facilitate cooperation (it was announced that elements of such a code were agreed upon), this will not resolve the dispute.
The Asia-Pacific security order is in a state of great uncertainty. At the heart of the problem is managing the transition from an order based on U.S. primacy to one that accommodates the rise of Chinese power. China is no longer satisfied with its perceived political and strategic subordination to the U.S.
Some claim that continued U.S. primacy means regional transformation would occur solely on U.S. terms, but those views are far too cozy and ignore the highly contested nature of American hegemony.
U.S. primacy is deeply entrenched in the Asia-Pacific and will not easily fade, despite the global restructuring of power. The U.S. is realigning its defense strategy to meet these new realities by recalibrating and concentrating resources in the region. This is, to some extent, a direct response to the large increases in Beijing’s military spending, which has caused concern both in Washington and among China’s neighbors.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that Chinese military spending rose by 170 percent in real terms since 2002, and by more than 500 percent since 1995. And yet, that increase has been in line with its economic growth. Since 2001, military spending has remained remarkably stable at about 2 percent of China’s gross domestic product. By comparison, U.S. military expenditure stands at 4.7 percent of GDP.
In a nutshell, U.S. rebalancing appears to be a policy based on containing China.
But U.S. rebalancing creates important challenges. First, rebalancing has reassured — if not emboldened — U.S. followers in the region that they can still depend on the American security umbrella. Second, Asian countries do not seem to be satisfied with the prospect of a regional order based on Chinese primacy.
Finally, U.S. rebalancing and Chinese assertiveness create an extremely volatile situation in the Asia-Pacific that is neither an architecture nor an order. Instead, the region is searching for both a vision and a design to manage relations among major powers and between major powers and weaker countries.
In fact, by emboldening regional allies while alienating and isolating China, a U.S. strategy of containment may have the adverse effect of creating a security dilemma that exacerbates intraregional tensions.
A prudent policy for East Asia should therefore emphasize cooperation and engagement, rather than a balance of power and containment. Five principles may serve as signposts for creating a new regional security order in the Asia-Pacific.
Great-power management trumps institutional design. An effective security order requires political bargaining among key stakeholders on the rules of the game. A regional order in the Asia-Pacific must be based on a grand bargain — centered around a Sino-U.S. condominium — with the (tacit) approval of other major powers, such as India, Japan and Australia.
Institutional form follows function. The form of regional institutions in the Asia-Pacific must follow the function of the grand bargain among great powers. Those who promote an ASEAN-centric regional ordering need to work out how to manage great-power relations in an era of deeply contested U.S. primacy.
Multilateral pluralism trumps monism. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to effectively reorder regional security. Collective problem solving needs to take advantage of both formal and informal approaches to multilateralism.
Contestation is part and parcel of collective action. Effective security governance requires a strategy to promote a discourse that champions one path of collective action over another. This strategy must carry enough authority to enforce a particular collective-action outcome and to make the outcome acceptable to a wider audience.
Power must be accountable. In light of the contested and fluid nature of global and regional security reordering, the accountability of those who wield power and military force is of paramount importance. Accountability is inextricably linked to justice and legitimacy, which constitutes the flip side of the great-power bargain.
In conclusion, the new security order in the Asia-Pacific cannot be based on old Cold War paradigms. A new understanding is needed on the game that powers want to play and the rules they ought to follow.
Jochen Prantl, senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.