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East Asia Summit: China Checkmated

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by Robyn Lim
Published on January 8th, 2006

The rapid force modernization of a ‘rising China’ provided the backdrop for the meeting of sixteen heads of government in Kuala Lumpur on 14th December. China did not succeed in its ambition to see created an East Asia Community (EAC) that Beijing could use as a vehicle for accommodating growing Chinese power.

Thus the next meeting of this amorphous group will not be held in China, but in Cebu in the Philippines, a US ally. Moreover, the Kuala Lumpur summit ruled out Beijing as a future venue as well, deciding that all EAC meetings would be held annually in conjunction with the ASEAN summit. That summit is held only in ASEAN countries. Moreover, Japan’s Prime Minister, Junicho Koizumi, did indeed checkmate China, with considerable help from his friends.

China, although it has turned to state-sponsored capitalism, still operates on the basis of undiluted realpolitik. Regimes that do not share power at home are unlikely to respect the rights and interests of others. There was a reminder of the connection between external and internal behavior at the time of the Kuala Lumpur meeting, when Chinese spokesmen were still denying knowledge of the "Shanwei Incident", in which more than twenty Chinese farmers defending their land were killed by government-backed thugs. Moreover, the rise of a new great power ― especially one with an authoritarian government ― has usually led to war.

Thus it will fall mostly to the United States, East Asia’s dominant power, to help bring China peacefully into the international system by means that do not constitute appeasement. But there will be no peace in East Asia while a Leninist regime lives on in Beijing.

China’s version of the Monroe Doctrine is to push America out of East Asia, while keeping Japan down. But America is showing no sign of willingness to be pushed out, nor Japan to be kept down. Indeed, against former leader Deng Xiaoping’s sage advice, China keeps poking Japan in the eye.

Thus Sino-Japanese tensions permeated the Kuala Lumpur meetings. The East Asian summit was preceded by the annual ASEAN meeting; separate meetings of the ASEAN leaders with the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea; and then meetings of the ASEAN leaders with China, Japan and South Korea as a group. But China prevented the holding of the usual China-Japan-South Korea meeting, harping on Japanese prime minister’s visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo.

China also sought to play the Russian card. Russia is now so weak in East Asia that it is willing to sell China almost anything by war of modern military equipment, which China is pointing at Taiwan and US aircraft carriers. Vladmir Putin was much in evidence at Kuala Lumpur, but did not succeed in gaining admission to the new grouping. That was the first indication that things had not gone China’s way.

Until recently, China seemed to have good prospects of being able to hijack the EAC process. America hates the idea of an EAC from which it is excluded, but does not want to join. That is mostly because it would be impossible for a US President to attend two East Asian summits each year. Thus America wants to breathe new life into APEC. At the recent APEC leaders’s meeting in Pusan, Bush held useful discussions with ASEAN leaders. Moreover, the US has been paying more attention to East Asia and Australia, with recent visits also by Rumsfeld, Rice and Bob Zoellick.

Nor have key US allies been idle. Japan and Australia recently upgraded their alliances with the United States. Trilateral security co-operation is proceeding apace, with maritime security as a special focus. That also helps to provide a venue for increasing cooperation with India, another rising Asian power, but one with a democratic government.

To the south, the Australian-Indonesian security relationship is rapidly being rebuilt in the wake of the overthrow of President Suharto in 1998, and Australia’s subsequent UN-authorized intervention in East Timor. Indeed, a few days before the Kuala Lumpur meetings, Australia and Indonesia pointedly announced the resumption of co-operation between their special forces.

And as far as the host government was concerned, the disappearance from the scene of viscerally racist Dr Mahathir made a huge difference, since he was so long an asset for Beijing. New prime minister Badawi trod a careful path, but placed Australia’s prime minister, John Howard, on his right at the signing ceremony (China’s premier Wen Jiabao was on Badawi’s left.)

Thus China, checkmated in Kuala Lumpur, is likely to fall back on the ASEAN Plus Three (ASEAN plus China, Japan and South Korea) which it can dominate ― Japan on its own cannot balance Chinese power, and South Korea is now China’s de facto ally. But that will not greatly bother the United States and its allies, since America’s key objective was to stop China from hijacking the EAC.

But although ASEAN is hoping to maintain its primacy in this process, it is a pipedream to think that ASEAN can mediate differences between China and Japan.

The two great civilizations of East Asia have never previously been strong at the same time. Despite growing economic interdependence, between them lies much visceral instinct and unresolved history. Moreover, China’s rapid force buildup is creating great anxiety in Japan.

In addition, China and Japan have a territorial dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. They also have conflicting Exclusive Economic Zone claims, fueled by a drive for oil and gas for their energy-deficient economies. Thus Japan is strengthening its alliance with the United States, and moving forces southward to reinforce its Senkaku/EEZ claims. US Marines and specially trained Japanese forces are about to start training for contingencies involving a Chinese seizure of an outlying Japanese island.

Sino-Japanese differences arise from strategic interest, not simple misunderstanding. They are not subject to resolution by dialogue, in ASEAN or anywhere else. Moreover, the two-track regional security dialogues have little utility, because they exclude discussion of the region’s most pressing security problems― the Korean peninsula, the Taiwan Strait, and the contested islands of the East and South China Sea. That is because China will not allow them to be discussed.

For all the hoopla on display in Kuala Lumpur, the ASEANs are weak states whose basic instinct is to be eaten last. They have not, for example, been able to resolve their conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, and no doubt China intends to pick them off one by one when the time is right.

All the major problems of East Asian security, including the Taiwan issue, are mostly products of China’s enhanced strategic latitude consequent upon the collapse of Soviet power. Secure on its land frontiers, China is pushing on its maritime frontiers, but is meeting the bedrock of the US-Japan alliance.

At the Kuala Lumpur summit, China thought it had Japan on the back foot, by harping on Koizumi’s visits to the controversial Yasukuni shine in Tokyo. That was also useful for driving further wedges between South Korea and Japan, both US allies.

But China seemed to forget that Koizumi is not a typical stodgy Japanese politician. To the contrary, as a lover of kabuki theatre, Koizumi knows how to work an audience. At the ceremony to sign the modest and vague document that came out of the summit, Koizumi found himself provided with a pen, rather than a calligraphy brush. So he asked to borrow Wen Jiabao’s brush, which Wen had no choice but to hand over with a smile. Then Koizumi, having signed the document, waved Wen’s brush at the audience.

So in the end Koizumi did manage to bring it all off, though not without a lot of help behind the scenes.

Robyn Lim is Professor of International Relations at Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan, and the author of The Geopolitics of East Asia (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).

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