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Security stability in East Asia.

DURING 2010 TO 2012, CONSIDERABLE DISCUSSION TOOK PLACE IN policy circles about avoiding a putative US-China competition through an East Asia multilateral balance of power in which neither power would dominate. The discussion was responding to what many observers saw as the prospect of a geopolitical power struggle (Economist 2014) in which the United States would seek to retain its present naval and air dominance in the western Pacific, and China would, at a minimum, seek to degrade US dominance (Gurtov 2013a) or, at a maximum, regain what many Chinese view as China's historical place as the Middle Kingdom. These US and Chinese goals might well be incompatible in that, as the Chinese proverb puts it, "one mountain cannot be shared by two tigers." Both governments have repeatedly expressed their desire to avoid such a "Thucydides trap" by prudent managing of the relationship between an established and a rising power. To President Xi Jinping that means establishing a "new type of relationship between the major powers" (Chen 2014b, 2; Wang 2014).

The obvious way to prevent a US-China power struggle is to create a regional balance of power in which neither power would dominate the region. The United States would not try to preserve its post-World War II regional hegemony, and China would not seek to gain hegemony in East Asia. For a stable balance of power to emerge requires that no major power involved in the region believes itself strong enough to undertake an expansionist policy at reasonable risk and cost, and each nation feels secure from attack or attempts at domination by any of the others.

The idea of a US-China balance of power was floated at a conference in the late 1990s, without much response, by the then US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Susan Shirk. She suggested that China, Russia, Japan, and the United States could "coordinate to keep the peace in Asia," following the model of the Concert of Europe (Shirk 2007, 106). Early in 2012 Henry Kissinger called for a "Pacific Community" within which the United States and China could accommodate their respective interests. Zbigniew Brzezinski advocated "a U.S.-Chinese-Japanese triangle" with the United States playing the role of "regional balancer," replicating the role of Britain in Europe in the nineteenth century (Brzezinski 2012, 101-102; Kissinger 2012, 52). Similarly, Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell argued that both China and the United States could benefit from "a new equilibrium of power, but with a larger role for China" (2012, 46).

Australian author Hugh White's The China Choice (2012) also considers an East Asia balance of power. He argues that it is not feasible for the United States to maintain its military dominance in the western Pacific given China's burgeoning economic capacity, and therefore says the United States should aim at moving China to "accept limits to its power and work with America in a new regional order" (White 2012, 81). In 2013 a joint China-US public opinion poll found that Chinese elites favor a "balance of power between Washington and Beijing" (Carnegie Endowment 2013, 3). Perhaps this Chinese view, which implies that there would be no one dominant power in the region, could lead to Chinese support for a broader concert among all the East Asian powers, adding some specificity to President Xi's still somewhat nebulous call for a "new type" of great power relationship.

Unfortunately, interest in the concert concept seems to have crested. From late 2012 through 2015, books on the East Asian security situation by Timothy Beardson (2013), Steve Chan (2012), Noah Feldman (2013), Jonathan Fenby (2014), Edward Luttwak (2012), Robert Haddack (2014), Thomas Mahnken (2014), Geoff Dyer (2014), Lyle Goldstein (2015), and Daniel Lynch (2015) did not discuss the concert concept. Neither was it covered in articles during the same period by Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner (2014), Elizabeth Economy (2014), Thomas Fingar and Fan Jishe (2013), Avery Goldstein (2013), Mark Leonard (2013), Pei Minxin (2014), Ely Ratner (2013), Kevin Rudd (2013), or Ashley Tellis (2013). These authors focused primarily on how China and the United States might manage collaboration on matters of common interest and confrontation on issues in conflict. David Shambaugh terms this model "competitive coexistence," in which, as Harry Harding puts it, China and the United States are "frenemies" (Harding 2010; Shambaugh 2013a, 74).

There are some interesting exceptions to the current general paucity of commentary on the concert idea. In his introductory chapter to Tangled Titans, David Shambaugh notes that sometimes leading powers have agreed to coexist in a concert, but he cautions that "in a concert containing an established and a rising power, that makes for an increasingly unstable strategic environment" (Shambaugh 2013b, 4-5). Whether a concert could work now in East Asia indeed depends on whether the United States seeks to retain its post-World War II regional dominance, and on just how high China hopes to rise. If the Chinese leadership decides, contrary to its present denials, to aim at restoring its historic role as the dominant power, then no concert could be formed. If the Chinese Communist Party's leaders decide that being one of several major powers in a system that has no dominant power is more cost-effective in providing for their nation's security (which it probably would be), then China could rise up to be a great power, even if not the hegemon, and the concert might work.

Robert Kaplan, in his book Asia's Cauldron, notes Hugh White's presentation of the concert concept, but cautions that the United States might not join, because membership would require it to give up its present military dominance in the western Pacific. However, Kaplan argues that a reduced US military position in the region could still be adequate to contribute to the stable power balance that he feels would be necessary to keep the peace in the South China Sea (Kaplan 2014, 27-31). Such a reduction in US regional power might well also make China more likely to enter into a concert effort.

In their book Strategic Reassurance and Resolve (2014b), James Steinberg and Michael O'Hanlon do not discuss the concert idea explicitly, but they do call for a stable balance of power in East Asia--presumably one with no dominant power, since if there were a hegemon, power would not be in balance. A concert could be an arrangement to create and maintain such a balance. They note that arms control agreements would be required to implement such an arrangement. They also offer a creative set of suggestions for actions the United States and China could each take unilaterally to prevent the infamous "security dilemma" from leading to a dangerous power struggle between China and the United States instead of to the emergence of a stable power balance (Steinberg and O'Hanlon 2014a, 108-115).

In an article in late 2013, Mel Gurtov followed up on his mention at the end of his 2013 book (2013b) of the need for a "security dialogue mechanism" in East Asia. He stresses the need to go beyond bilateral US-China forums, such as the periodic meetings of military leaders, and on a multilateral level "create a permanent institution devoted to many other regional security issues, including environmental and territorial disputes." Such an institution might facilitate China and the United States arriving at "a common position on regional security issues" (Gurtov 2013a, 4-5).

Dominance or Balance?

These recent expressions of interest in a "no dominant power" model for East Asia support the idea that implementing a Concert of East Asia might well be the best approach to avoiding a possible US-China confrontation. However, would these two powers be willing to join in such an effort? On the part of the United States, security interests do not necessarily require it to permanently remain the dominant military power in the western Pacific. Historically, US foreign policy has not sought dominance in East Asia, but rather has tried, as Aaron Friedberg recently put it succinctly, "to prevent the domination of either end of the Eurasian landmass by one or more potentially hostile powers" (Friedberg 2012, 50-51). When Japan conquered much of Asia and then attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, US military might in Asia was built up to defeat Japan. The United States then maintained a significant military presence in Asia during the Cold War as part of an effort to contain Soviet expansionism. The US goal was not to attain dominance per se--the dominance that it acquired was a means to the end of a balance of power that would block the Soviet Union. At the end of the Cold War, the United States in effect found itself to be "the last man standing" in East Asia. Japan's military might has been kept limited since World War II, the USSR was gone, and China, though already "rising," had not yet risen enough to equal the United States in air and naval power.

Military dominance is not an end in itself--it sometimes may be a necessary means to a foreign policy goal. However, today no hostile expansionist power in East Asia threatens US security the way Imperial Japan and Soviet Russia did. Thus, US policy should focus on its traditional goal of promoting a stable East Asian balance of power within which no country is powerful enough to pose a credible expansionist threat to its neighbors.

As for China, might it view joining a security architecture with no dominant regional power as being in its own national interest? In such an arrangement China would have to give up any "Chinese Dream" of regaining its traditional position as the Middle Kingdom. While many Chinese might well feel considerable emotional satisfaction to see China gain regional hegemony after the "century of humiliation," such dominance might not be in China's own interest now. Power relations in the region today are far different from the Tang or Ming dynasty eras, as well as in the period before Japan's invasion in the 1930s. In the dynastic period, China was the only major power in the region and enjoyed dominance simply by virtue of its larger size, central position, and more advanced levels of state organization. Only when China became weak and divided internally could the nomadic tribes in Central Asia successfully invade and sometimes rule China. Weakness and internal division also facilitated Japanese imperialism's advance onto the Asian mainland. Today's geopolitical situation in East Asia comprises three major powers--China, Japan, and Russia--plus a strong US military and political presence, conditions that have no precedent.

Alliance politics must also be taken into account today. When one among multiple major powers in a region begins a drive toward attaining hegemony, the others, rather than acquiescing and becoming tributary states, will probably react by forming an alliance to block the attempt. A Chinese drive for hegemony could thus produce hostile relations with its neighbors rather than the kind of regional stability in which China's dominance is recognized by the other powers (Friedberg 2012; Kissinger 2012). Attaining and continuing hegemony could thus be very expensive for China today, especially considering the huge costs of modern weaponry and lost economic benefits. China might better devote the funding and resources required for hegemony to dealing with its potentially destabilizing internal challenges such as pollution, official corruption, rural poverty, and unemployment (Gurtov 2013a).

In its current state, China may well choose not to launch a drive for hegemony, and thus might see advantages to entering into a concert. Doing so would fit with China's self-image as a peaceful power that historically has been the victim of aggression much more often than it has been the aggressor (Nathan and Scobell 2012; Rudd 2013).

What Is a Concert of Powers?

The United States as Balancer Power

A concert-based new security architecture for East Asia that could produce and maintain a stable balance would not constitute Xi Jinping's "new type of great power relations." It is actually a type of relationship that has historical roots. Unlike an alliance, a concert is not directed against any common adversary. It is, in effect, "an alliance of all against each other"--a collective endeavor to keep power balanced so as to prevent aggressive expansionism by any member.

The obvious model for a Concert of East Asia would be the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe (Kupchan and Kupchan 1992). The precondition for the formation and effective operation of a concert is that all the major powers in the region concerned be committed to the status quo--that is, none are involved in an expansionist effort to upset the existing balance, and all feel secure within it. The situation in Northeast Asia today is of that kind. Neither Japan nor Russia nor China is currently seeking regional hegemony, although China's recent more confrontational approach to its territorial claims in the oceans off its shores may presage its adoption of such an ambitious goal (Ratner and Wright 2014). This propitious moment should be seized upon to form a Concert of East Asia, including China, Russia, and Japan, to maintain strategic stability in the region.

If the United States is part of such a concert, it might play a useful role as a balancer, as Great Britain did for a lengthy time in Europe. If one member of the concert began to get too powerful, the United States could throw its weight onto the side of the weaker powers, to prevent any breakout from the prevailing balance of power. If China, the region's dominant land power, became expansionist, the threatened rimland states would have to depend on naval power to maintain the regional balance, and that would require a major role for the US Navy. Thus, having a member of the concert that is involved in the region but not geographically within it might well fit the interests not only of the United States but also of the East Asian members of the concert. That includes China, because US participation could help keep all parties secure.

To play the role of balancer, the United States would not necessarily need to maintain its present naval/air power predominance in the western Pacific. It would merely have to retain sufficient military might in the region to assure that by adding its weight to that of the weaker powers at any given time, their total power would be enough to contain any state from gaining regional hegemony, as Japan did in the 1930s. This more modest role might allow the United States to reduce its military expenditures and base options in the Asian region.

However, within such a Concert of East Asia, the United States, even if not bearing the full cost of being the dominant power, would still require a substantial amount of naval and air strength. Admiral Mahan's dictum that a great power, for both military security and commercial success, needs secure access to the world's sea lanes and therefore a strong navy, is no less true today than in the 1890s--hence the recent US insistence on access to the South China Sea for its shipping. This would still be true in a concert system covering East Asia and the western Pacific.

Arms Control

In order to maintain a stable balance, the members of the concert would have to negotiate arms control agreements, setting military quotas for each member country at levels allowing each to feel secure but none capable of achieving regional dominance. Precedents for such an endeavor are the Washington Naval Arms Limitation agreements between the two World Wars, and the Mutual Balanced Forces Reduction agreement between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact toward the end of the Cold War. Each nation would be allocated a maximum number of weapons of existing types--ships, aircraft, missiles, artillery. As was taken into account in the Washington Naval Arms Limitation agreements, the Asian powers, including China, might feel secure even if the military might of each were still much less than US military power, given that US power would be spread globally rather than entirely concentrated in East Asia. Even if China were to seek regional hegemony, as many Western observers now fear it might, it will clearly lack for a very long time the capabilities required to gain global superpower status (Gurtov 2013a).

In addition to limiting amounts of existing types of weapons, the members of the Concert could also agree not to create or acquire certain new types of weapons as the advance of technology makes them possible. Otherwise, the understandable desire of each nation's armed forces to keep its weaponry up to date would create an arms race in new, high-tech weapons, with all the countries ending up with no greater security than before but spending greater amounts of money to maintain that same level of security. (If the four major powers in the Concert of East Asia agreed to forgo new weapons, the European powers would likely follow suit). Precedents for this from the Cold War period would be the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the various strategic nuclear arms (SALT and START) treaties signed by the Soviet Union and the United States.

The arms-limitation agreements of the concert would thus have to be both quantitative and qualitative. Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution and J. Stapleton Roy of the Woodrow Wilson Center in early 2012 called for the United States and China to negotiate levels and types of armaments and deployments that could satisfy each country's core security interests in the western Pacific, lest "their growing strategic rivalry evolve into mutual antagonism" (Lieberthal and Roy 2012). In contrast, James Steinberg and Michael O'Hanlon see arms-limitation efforts as impractical--although they do advocate trying to show China that it would be in that nation's own interest to level off its growing defense budget at 50 percent of US military expenditures (2014b).

It is not at all unusual for countries with past histories of conflict (China-Japan, Japan-Russia, Korea-Japan) and with a number of presently diverging interests (US-China over cyber espionage, Japan-China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands) to join in multilateral groupings to solve common problems. Perhaps the most pressing common problem is not letting past conflicts and present divergences unintentionally escalate into power struggles and possibly wars. In The Global Power of Talk, Fen Osler Hampson and I. William Zartman (2012) cite as one example of what they term "teams of rivals" the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements that herded a group of cats as diverse as the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam, Laos, the United Nations Security Council's Big Five, and all of the then six members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations into a comprehensive settlement of the civil war in Cambodia. Another of their examples, the 2003-2008 series of Six Party Talks on North Korean denuclearization, shows that a forum of East Asia's not-so-friendly nations can be created at least to discuss a sensitive regional security issue (Hampson and Zartman 2012). (They met because all the parties wanted the nuclear issue solved, and although they failed to produce a settlement, the parties did agree in 2005 on some useful guidelines.) As Mel Gurtov has suggested, the Six Party Talks might serve as a precedent for multilateral talks that cover all aspects of regional security (2013a).

Arms Racing

Even if China were not to seek regional hegemony, there is a worrisome scenario that could set China and the United States on the path of confrontation rather than accommodation: the much-feared security dilemma, in which country A starts to build up its military strength and country B, not knowing whether A intends to use its new power for defense or for expansion, believes that out of prudence it must make the worst-case assumption and therefore responds with a buildup of its own. Country A then also makes the worst-case assumption about B's buildup, and the two states become enmeshed in an expensive and risky arms race, even though both of them are in fact acting defensively, with no expansionist plans in mind.

An arms race may already be under way between China and the United States, with the United States shifting most of its aircraft carriers from the Middle East to the Pacific, and China building new weapons useful mainly to attack the US Navy's Seventh Fleet. Possessing such weapons, China could hope to deter US intervention if military conflict should erupt in the Taiwan Strait. The US military is said to view China's buildup of surface vessels equipped with antiship cruise missiles and ultra-quiet submarines, plus its testing of ballistic missiles that can target aircraft carriers, as evidence that China is adopting an "anti-access/area denial" strategy to block US access to the seas off China's coast. In response, the United States is devising an "air-sea battle strategy" that would allow it to maintain combat capability in those seas, acting from distant bases even if denied access to coastal waters (Economist 2012, 2013a, 2013b; Perlez 2012; Steinberg and O'Hanlon 2014b; Wines 2011). Avery Goldstein warns that this incipient arms race could spark a crisis that neither China nor the United States intends but that could "quickly escalate to military conflict" (2013, 136).

Containing China?

An arms race provides a propitious setting for Chinese foreign policy realists in general, and ultranationalists in particular, to gain further influence over foreign policy by continuing to portray US military actions as being aimed at preventing China's further rise as a great power. Modern history shows a pattern of nationalism intensifying as a country rapidly industrializes, and many observers, both Chinese and foreign, see this occurring now in China (Ross 2012; Shirk 2007). Arms racing could increase the chances of this new nationalism becoming antiforeign in nature, rather than just reflecting patriotic pride in the nation's new achievements.

The danger presented by the "security dilemma" may yet be avoided. So far, both the United States and the Chinese governments have been professing their preference for accommodation over competition, each saying that it thinks it has more to gain from cooperation than from rivalry (Economist 2014). However, the official Chinese media have made it clear that Chinese suspicions of the Western powers are still alive, and therefore that US professions of benign intent lack credibility (Chen 2014a; Economist 2014; Lieberthal and Wang 2012; Liu 2014; Nathan and Scobell 2012; Wu 2014). Many Chinese are convinced that the United States is committed to maintaining dominance in the western Pacific despite the end of the Cold War. They calculate (probably correctly) that the United States, with its severe budgetary problems, cannot afford to continue building up its power in East Asia so as to maintain its margin over growing Chinese strength, and therefore can only maintain the US edge by limiting China's rise, however peaceful that rise may be.

The best way for the United States to disabuse the Chinese of their view that US "hegemonism" amounts to containment of China would be for the United States to propose the creation of a concert of East Asia aimed at a stable balance of power with no regional hegemon. Such a proposal by its nature would exclude the continuation of US post-World War II military dominance in the region and could help offset Chinese fears of US intentions behind the recent US "pivot" to Asia.

Thus, the current general paucity of discussion of the concert idea is worrisome because a China-US rivalry for dominance, characterized by a ruinous arms race in East Asia that drains money out of every nation's education and health budgets, would be in no one's interest. The present still fairly propitious moment for establishing a stable security balance in the region should not be allowed to slip by. It is time for a Concert of East Asia.


William A. Douglas is professorial lecturer at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He specializes in democracy in developing countries, international ethics, and international labor affairs, and has three decades of experience in developing, and teaching in, labor education programs throughout Latin America. He was the Fei Yiming Visiting Professor of Politics at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in 2009-2011. He is the author of Developing Democracy (1972) and coeditor of Promoting Democracy (1988), among other publications. He can be reached at


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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Author:Douglas, William A.
Publication:Asian Perspective
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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