China’s Encirclement Concerns

For almost two decades, Chinese strategists have worried about what they regard as the geopolitical encirclement of China. At various times, they have attributed that encirclement to the United States, then India, and most recently Japan.[1] No doubt last week’s large-scale naval exercise in the western Pacific did little to dispel their concerns. For the first time warships from India, Japan, and the United States jointly conducted anti-air and anti-submarine drills in the Philippine Sea, an area directly adjacent to the Chinese-claimed waters of the East and South China Seas.

China's Encirclement Concerns
China’s Encirclement Concerns

Events over the past month likely added to China’s concerns. Last Friday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bangkok in part to expand his country’s defense and maritime security cooperation with Thailand. A week earlier, he met with President Barack Obama at the White House, highlighting India’s closer ties with the United States. At a summit in late May, the United States and Japan, along with other Group of Seven countries, openly voiced their concern over China’s maritime actions. Days before the summit, Obama flew to Hanoi where he lifted the long-standing U.S. arms embargo against Vietnam, one of China’s South China Sea antagonists. Then after the summit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe welcomed a Vietnamese delegation to discuss how they could enhance their military cooperation.

Certainly Chinese concerns over encirclement are not new. During the Cold War, China worried about the Soviet Union pursuing a similar geopolitical strategy. Even earlier, the Chinese Communist Party faced several all too real “encirclement campaigns” during China’s long civil war. Those experiences could have left an imprint may have left their imprint on China’s strategic thinking ever since.

What is clear is that Asia-Pacific countries have begun to prepare for what could be an era of heightened tensions. Such hedging has recently accelerated, as Chinese behavior in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and on its border with India has grown increasingly muscular. The United States has pursued its “pivot” or “rebalance” toward Asia, which shifted the bulk of American naval might to the Pacific. India and Japan have boosted their diplomatic and economic engagement in Southeast Asia and strengthened their military postures. Other countries have begun to do the same. As Australia’s 2016 defense white paper warned, “competing claims for territory and natural resources [in the region]… could undermine stability.”[2] But does such hedging constitute an encirclement of China?

Imagined Encirclements

In the early 2000s, China agonized over a possible American encirclement on its western border as U.S. forces streamed into Afghanistan and Central Asia. But a decade later, a persistent insurgency had worn down the United States and its allies. U.S. military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were closed; America’s once-close relationship with Pakistan became acrimonious; and U.S. forces began their long withdrawal. China’s concern never materialized.

Now Beijing fears an even wider encirclement by the countries along the Asia-Pacific periphery, as they hedge against China’s assertive behavior. But most of them are still in the early stages of building up their strength. Although Australia has launched an ambitious military modernization program, its forces remain small. India’s defense bureaucracy continues to frustrate its military’s modernization and expansion plans. While Japan fields highly capable forces, its fragile economy constrains its military’s ability to grow. Even America’s “pivot” toward Asia may not be as weighty as it sounds, as the Obama administration has trimmed the overall size of the U.S. Navy. Hence, one could argue that China’s concern over an encirclement is, at least for the moment, not wholly warranted.

Undermine the Encirclement

Besides, the countries that China fears will encircle it are not yet a cohesive bunch. Officially non-aligned, India remains skittish about is relationship with the United States. And while Australia and Japan have security treaties with the United States, they do not have strong ties with each other. That was evident when Australia, at the last minute, chose to purchase France’s Scorpene-class submarine over Japan’s Sōryū-class submarine for its next-generation submarine fleet. India’s security relationships with Australia and Japan are equally tenuous. China could use bilateral deals to weaken those relationships and hinder a nascent encirclement from coalescing any further.

Breakout of the Encirclement

But even if China’s fear was to manifest itself, Beijing is already developing the means to break out of it. In late 2013, China turned heads across Asia with its “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Among the many infrastructure projects it has financed in Southeast Asia are a special economic zone in Cambodia, hydroelectric dams in Laos, and energy and railway projects in Malaysia. While China’s “yuan diplomacy” has not always been successful, it has had an impact. Cambodia and Laos have become reliable advocates for China within ASEAN. Malaysia largely remains on the sidelines of the South China Sea dispute, despite a rising number of Chinese infringements of its exclusive economic zone. China’s initiative may prove useful even in the Philippines, which has been a thorn in Beijing’s side. The Philippines’ new president, Rodridgo Duterte, has indicated that he would undertake the bilateral dialogue that China has long sought in exchange for Chinese economic development assistance.

Benefit of the Encirclement

Still, Beijing may have reason to play up its fears of encirclement. Despite its remarkable economic achievements, China faces a host of problems. Today, Chinese leaders must manage their country’s difficult transition from investment-led growth to expansion by private consumption, while dealing with its various debt-fueled bubbles. Even under the best conditions, those challenges are bound to be volatile. So some may see fears of encirclement as a way to rally public sentiment and maintain the “social stability” needed to ensure the longevity of communist rule. In any case, whether the “encirclement of China” is imagined or real, effective or not, one can expect the phrase to remain in Beijing’s lexicon for years to come.

NOTES

[1] Zhang Yunbi, “Tokyo urged not to stir tension in the South China Sea,” China Daily, Mar. 10, 2016, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2016-03/10/content_23806572.htm; “Tokyo’s move to encircle China will lead nowhere,” Global Times, Nov. 23, 2015, www.globaltimes.cn/content/954471.shtml; Hu Qingyun, “US to increase troops stationed in Australia: Deal seen as move to ‘encircle’ China,” Global Times, Aug. 13, 2014, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/875836.shtml; Li Hongmei, “India’s ‘Look East Policy’ means to encircle China,” People’s Daily Online, Oct. 27, 2010, http://en.people.cn/90002/96417/7179404.html; Dai Xu, “U.S. building ‘Asian NATO’ to encircle China,” China.org.cn, Aug. 11, 2010, http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/2010-08/11/content_20687335.htm; “China feels encircled,” Economist, Jun. 6, 2002.

[2] Australian Department of Defence, 2016 Defence White Paper (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2016), p. 57.

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Obama’s Visit to Asia and U.S. Alliances

As foreign trips go, President Barack Obama’s visit to Asia in April 2014 was more important than most.  It was originally scheduled to coincide with the APEC summit in October 2013, but domestic problems prevented him from travelling at that time.  But even then, such a trip was needed.  Many in Asia already had become concerned over his administration’s commitment to its strategic “pivot” or “rebalancing” towards the region.  Both its economic and security legs had come to little.  Despite the administration’s goal to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade talks in 2013, they were nowhere near a final agreement (and still are far from one).  Meanwhile, doubts emerged about the seriousness of the U.S. military rebalance.  A major part of that rebalance hinged on the U.S. Navy’s shift from a force that was equally balanced between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to one that would be tilted, 60 percent, toward the Pacific.  But given that the administration’s concurrent efforts would reduce the overall size of the U.S. Navy, many wondered whether its tilt would provide any boost to U.S. capabilities in the region.  And, more broadly, the United States still seemed more willing to engage itself in places like Libya and Syria, than in the East or South China Seas.

During the intervening six months, tensions in Asia have climbed even higher: from China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea (November 2013) and its quasi-maritime blockade of the Philippine-held Second Thomas Shoal (March 2014) to Japan’s decision to build a new radar base on Yonaguni Island (April 2014) to North Korea’s artillery barrages and missile tests (March and April 2014).  Layered on top of all that has been the Ukraine crisis, in which the Obama administration has allowed Russia to violate Ukrainian sovereignty without any serious repercussions.  That itself follows Obama’s failure to act in 2013 after Syria crossed his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons.  Little wonder that such worrisome events have made U.S. allies in Asia nervous.

Such was the backdrop for Obama’s visit to Asia over the last week.  Without a doubt, his main objective was to reassure U.S. allies in the region.  Obama visited all three U.S. security treaty partners during his trip: Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

In Japan, Obama plainly stated that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty would cover all territories administered by Japan.  That means the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands in China) in the East China Sea would be defended, since they are administered by Japan (though his later reply to a press question as to whether his statement represented a “red line” in the East China Sea slightly muddied its impact).  Still, it was the first time that an American president directly addressed the issue.  That must have heartened Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe.  And though there was no breakthrough in the bilateral TPP negotiations between Japan and the United States during Obama’s stay, some incremental progress was made in the days afterwards.

Obama then touched down in South Korea, where he warned Pyongyang against further military provocations.  Already this year, North Korea fired artillery into and short-range ballistic missiles over South Korean waters.  Now, there is the prospect of a North Korean nuclear test.  And so, Obama sought to do more warning.  He also worked to coax Japan and South Korea into overcoming their historical animosities.  Given that both countries and the United States must deal with the threat from North Korea (and perhaps China in the future), the administration hoped that America’s two security treaty allies could find a way to work together, rather than against each other.  Lastly, Obama’s presence in Seoul helped South Korean President Park Geun-hye demonstrate the strength of the U.S.-South Korean alliance to the Korean National Assembly.  That was important, since it soon will consider a major increase in its financial support of U.S. forces in South Korea, as part of a larger agreement reached seven years earlier in which wartime operational control of combined U.S.-South Korean forces would transition from an American general to a South Korean one.

Finally, just before Obama’s arrival in Manila, American and Philippine representatives signed a ten-year accord called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.  Under negotiation for much of the last two years, that agreement was originally dubbed the Increased Rotational Presence Framework Agreement, largely because that was its intent: to enable U.S. forces to more regularly rotate through the Philippines in order to conduct joint exercises with the Philippine armed forces.  The final agreement also allows the United States to keep the equipment that it uses for those exercises at Philippine military bases.  The frequency of those exercises could be increased to the point at which there would be a near-continuous American military presence in the Philippines.  That would represent a meaningful change in U.S. force posture in the region and send a strong signal of American commitment to the Philippines.  The successful conclusion of the agreement was a victory for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, who faced domestic opposition to it.  The agreement offers the Philippines some breathing space to rebuild its own external defense forces and pursue greater security cooperation with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

While in Southeast Asia, Obama also began to build new economic and security bridges to Malaysia, which had developed somewhat cozier relations with China than the United States since the 1990s.  Hence, it was notable that Obama and Prime Minister Najib Razak elevated their countries’ relationship to one of a “comprehensive partnership.”  (That matched the status which Malaysia conferred on China a year earlier.)  But little more was accomplished for the time being, due to popular resistance in Malaysia to the American-led TPP.

Upon Obama’s return to the United States, he can rightly claim that American allies in the region feel more reassured.  But American reassurances will ultimately need to be matched with American deeds.  Sadly, Obama’s reticence to persuade members of his own party to grant him “fast track” authority to streamline the TPP’s ratification process belies to some degree his own words of commitment.  An even bigger question is whether his words will impress China or North Korea.  No doubt, his words will be tested.  Questions about American commitments to its Asian allies were not fashioned overnight, nor will they be dispelled with a presidential visit.

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Now Is the Time: Setting U.S. Policy on Taiwan

On February 11, Taiwan marked a milestone in its relations with China.  The head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council held direct talks with his counterpart in China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.  Such government-to-government talks have not occurred since the Chinese Civil War split the two sides sixty-five years ago.  Although the direct talks accomplished far less than the quasi-official meetings that China and Taiwan already held to improve trade and travel between them, the talks were an important step in Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s efforts to warm ties with mainland China.  Certainly his efforts have calmed tensions across the Taiwan Strait, which reached a peak during his predecessor’s term as president.  But lest there be too much optimism, a gulf (not only of water) remains between the two sides.

For the moment, Taiwan’s political leaders are focused on the regional elections that lay ahead this year and, perhaps for Ma, the legacy that he will leave behind.  Both of the major political parties on Taiwan have recently taken a second look at its bridge building with China.  Under Ma, the Kuomintang (KMT) has taken the initiative to build those bridges in order to boost Taiwan’s flagging economy.  But many within the KMT’s rank-and-file remain wary of further movement that could lead to Beijing’s rule over Taiwan.  Meanwhile, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which once unabashedly advocated for independence from China, is now increasingly split between those who still want independence and those who want to open talks with China, if that is the direction their island nation is to go.  And so, as Taiwan’s political leaders position themselves for electoral success later this year, they are also implicitly crafting their parties’ policy narratives for Taiwan’s 2016 presidential elections.

Yet for all the discussion within Taiwan about how to approach China, few seem concerned about how the United States would react.  That is remarkable because the United States is the island nation’s security guarantor from Chinese attack.  Can one attribute Taiwan’s lack of attention on the United States to its confidence that America’s security guarantee is beyond question?  Or can one attribute Taiwan’s attitude to the growing perception in Asia that despite the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” toward the region that American military might and political will to guarantee Asian stability no longer seems quite assured, at least relative to China’s rise.  Such a perception has already motivated countries, like Japan and the Philippines, to seek reassurances from Washington of its continued commitments to them.

And so, perhaps Taiwan’s political leaders, anticipating a gradual weakening of American resolve to defend their island nation, have chosen to deepen their ties with China, while they can still negotiate with some measure of strength.  But whether they want to admit it or not, their behavior also influences American determination to maintain Taiwan’s freedom from China.  On the other hand, they cannot wait for the United States to come to a consensus regarding Taiwan.  In Secretary of State John Kerry’s most recent visit to China, North Korea and the East China Sea were the top issues of discussion; it is unclear whether Taiwan even reached the agenda.

Indeed, it is an open question whether the United States has a clear policy on Taiwan.  Two camps have emerged in Washington: one wants to ensure a Taiwan free from Chinese rule and the other sees Taiwan as a nuisance in the great power relations between China and the United States that are already complex and fraught with other dangers.  Partly out of necessity, the latter camp seemed to have gained the upper hand after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.  Washington needed calm across the Taiwan Strait as it fought two conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But putting Taiwan on the backburner has made the island’s absorption into China more likely, in which case the most practical American policy would be to help Taiwan obtain the best possible terms for its absorption.  The former camp, probably sensing America’s drift away from Taiwan, has become more vocal.  It urges that American policy take a firmer line on Taiwan—enhancing the island’s defenses and building stronger political bonds with it.  Some within that camp simply abhor the notion that China will snuff out Taiwan’s democracy; others point to Taiwan’s value to the United States, citing the island’s geographical significance to the balance of power in the western Pacific.

Whichever policy direction the United States chooses, it would be wise to start engaging Taiwan’s political leaders now.  Waiting until Taiwan turns its attention to the United States may be too late.  By 2016 when Taiwan’s presidential election cycle is in full swing, the island’s political parties are likely to have hardened their respective positions, making American influence less effective.  Now is the time to begin its engagement.  But that is if Washington can manage to decide which policy it should pursue.

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Turning Point: Japan’s Upper House Election and National Security

On Sunday, July 21, the Japanese electorate propelled Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) (together with its partner, the New Komeito Party) to the majority in Japan Diet’s House of Councillors (or upper house).  The victory ends the parliamentary impasse, in which the LDP controlled the lower house and its opponents the upper house.  The biggest issues of the election were Abe’s “three arrow” economic policies and how he hopes to restore Japan’s national power grid.  But many also saw the election as a referendum on Abe’s plans to boost Japan’s self-defense forces and possibly even amend Article Nine of the country’s constitution, which renounces the threat or use of force to settle international disputes and prohibits Japan from establishing formal armed forces.

Though the victory was not large enough to immediately pass a constitutional amendment, it has raised concerns among those Japanese who oppose any revision to Article Nine.  They worry that Japan could experience a resurgence of its pre-World War II militarism or, at the very least, could be pulled into foreign conflicts by its main ally, the United States.  Others, however, are open to amending the constitution; they believe the document, largely written by American lawyers in the occupation authority, should better reflect the needs and will of the Japanese people.  And an increasing number wonder whether the real question is not why Japan should consider amending its constitution, but rather why it has not already done so?  Many young Japanese (like many young Germans) wonder how long their country must repent for and be constrained by the sins committed by their forbearers nearly 70 years ago.  They would like Japan to become, in Abe’s words, an “ordinary country.”

Of course, the debate within Japan has not occurred in isolation.  There have been calls from abroad for Japan to better meet its international security obligations as a major developed country.  After the Persian Gulf Conflict in 1991, some (mainly Americans) found fault with Japan’s contribution to the Coalition war effort, which came largely came in the form of dollars (over $10 billion of them), rather than soldiers.  By the early 2000s, Japan had begun to send small military detachments overseas, usually in clearly defensive, humanitarian, or peacekeeping roles.  Its ground forces were deployed to Iraq as part of the reconstruction effort after 2003 and its maritime forces escorted allied shipping through the Indian Ocean.  And since its inception, Japanese warships have participated in the multinational anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden.

But it has been Japan’s increasingly worrisome security environment over the last several years that has really spurred many Japanese to reexamine the role of their self-defense forces and seriously consider changes to Article Nine for the first time.  North Korea’s unusually prolonged saber rattling this past spring only served to underscore their heightened sense of insecurity.  Despite Japan’s alliance with the United States and much bandied-about American pivot to Asia, other powers in the region seem bent on exploiting Japan’s pacifism.  Since the mid-2000s, Japan has closely monitored a rise in Russian incursions into Japanese airspace as well as a steady increase in the number of Chinese warships that pass near its southern islands and, in some provocative cases, circumnavigate Japan’s home islands.  And, of course, over the last year tensions between China and Japan have risen as a result of their territorial dispute in the East China Sea, which includes the sovereignty over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands.  Indeed, in the week prior to Sunday’s election, China began drilling for oil in a disputed area of the East China Sea, prompting Japan to dispatch a geologic survey ship.

Even so, any overhaul of Japan’s self-defense forces will take time.  It took almost a decade for Japan’s annual defense white paper to even acknowledge that a rising China presented new challenges, presumably because Tokyo wanted to reduce the potential for Chinese backlash against Japanese commercial interests in China.  Following the Cold War, far more Japanese have been concerned about reviving their national economy rather than their national security.  Most believed that the qualitative superiority of Japan’s self-defense forces was sufficient to ensure their safety.  But after years of under investment, together with China’s rapid military modernization and Russia’s revival, Japan has seen its qualitative margin eroded.  And given the recent behavior of its neighbors, a growing number of Japanese feel that more attention must be given to national defense, either with or without an amendment to Article Nine.  The Japanese media frequently reports on the strains that constant patrolling of disputed airspace and waters have put on Japan’s self-defense forces and coast guard.  At a practical level, there is much to do, even apart from new hardware procurement—from making Japan’s self-defense forces work together more jointly to deciding how (and under what circumstances) they would be used.  If tangible progress is made, then the election will have proven itself to be a turning point for Japanese national security.

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