China and the Uses of Uncertainty

Posted January 4, 2006

Categories: Articles, China

The regional status quo in Northeast Asia appears to have self-destructed over the last few years. North Korea has announced that it possesses nuclear weapons and, with its most recent test, may have kicked down the door to the nuclear club. Japan has already stepped out from under its “peace constitution,” and it is no longer quite so taboo for Japanese politicians to discuss a preemptive strike option or even a formal nuclear capability. The U.S.-South Korean security alliance is beginning to fray at the edges as Seoul prepares to strike off in a more independent direction. China has embraced multilateralism, has significantly encroached on U.S. economic and diplomatic influence in the region, and has even participated as an observer (for the first time in June 2006) in a large-scale joint military exercise in the Asia Pacific conducted by the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

And yet, certain salient features of the old security order persist. China and Taiwan, despite considerable cross-investment, continue to face off across the Taiwan Straits. North and South Korea, despite movement toward rapprochement, remain divided at mid-peninsula. Still asserting its role as an honest broker with no territorial ambitions, the United States maintains the most powerful military force in the region even as it calls upon reserves from the Pacific theater to bolster its presence in the Middle East. Japan and the United States have never been closer. China and North Korea abide as nominal allies.

Northeast Asia seems, in other words, to be caught half in and half out of order. To borrow from the terminology of another discipline, the region has entered a liminal state. Cold War verities no longer apply except in the most vulgar sense (for instance, militarized borders). But a new regional dispensation has yet to take its place because the actors all remain uncertain of their new identities and regional roles. It has become quite difficult to predict—and predictability is the essence of order—the future trajectories of each nation. With all relationships in flux, the exponential increase in permutations and combinations makes it nearly impossible to calculate the likelihood of one scenario prevailing over any other.

Such a liminal state—a term originally used by anthropologists to speak of an in-between status in transformative rituals—poses enormous risks and opportunities at a geopolitical level. All states are trying to extract greatest advantage in the new, evolving, and still-unclear dispensation. Though uncertainty does not automatically lead to conflict, a collection of states all jockeying for maximal position before a new arrangement crystallizes can be very dangerous indeed.

A new order will eventually coalesce in the region. Geopolitics, after all, abhors unpredictability. And the most likely paradigm, to hazard a prediction despite all the aforementioned unpredictability, will be Sinocentric.

The Uses of Uncertainty

While randomness pervades so much of the natural world, predictability is the lifeblood of human systems. Financiers make investments based on probable returns, tourists plan their travel based on likely risks, government leaders construct foreign policies on the basis of expected outcomes. Though smart decision-makers prepare for unexpected contingencies, they must craft policies considering what is most plausible. The greater the predictability, the higher the comfort level.

In the same way that liminal sexuality makes many people uncomfortable—consider the movie TransAmerica—liminal geopolitical states make most policymakers squirm. Does North Korea have a bomb or not? Has China fully embraced peaceful multilateralism, or does Beijing still harbor territorial aims beyond Taiwan? Will South Korea’s new foreign policy outlook emphasize independence, neutrality, balance, or some other approach? Will Japan abandon its peace constitution or not?

Uncertainty about these basic postures bedevils policymakers—with one major exception. Uncertainty about another’s plans is frustrating, but uncertainty can be a welcome or even a necessary element in one’s own plans.

The United States has specialized in incorporating equivocation into military planning. The “neither confirm nor deny” policy concerning the presence of nuclear weapons on ships, stations, and aircraft, updated in February 2006 in a memo from the office of the Chief of Naval Operations , keeps U.S. deterrent capability in a state of fluid liminality. Likewise, Condoleezza Rice’s recent response to North Korea’s announced nuclear test simultaneously stressed that “there is no intention to invade or attack them” and that the president “never takes any of his options off the table.” For its part, North Korea has been evasive about its nuclear capability, offering concealed tests, possible decoys, and bait and switch (such as the notorious Kumchang-ri caverns). Such a liminal nuclear capacity serves as a necessary interim construct until an actual, robust program is in place. It is also a potentially cheaper deterrent than an arsenal that can be measured and determined to be wanting.

China long ago came to grips with the liminal quality of East Asian security. Sometimes China’s tolerance for the liminal is tactical. Hong Kong has long been a liminal city, first as a British colony and now as a more-or-less democratic, capitalist enclave within China proper. Taiwan is a liminal country, with an uncertain foreign policy status. Beijing’s long-term ambition is to move the territories it considers Chinese out of their liminal status and into unambiguously Sin-sovereign space. In its relations with the near abroad, however, a liminal status can be maintained. The alliance with North Korea, for instance, has widened considerably since the era when relations were dubbed “as close as lips and teeth.”

It is the privilege of military superpowers to embed uncertainty in their foreign policies. Middle powers such as Japan and South Korea traditionally must submit to order and transparency: unless allies provide predictable responses in times of war and peace, penalties will ensue. It’s left to outlier nations like North Korea to adopt weapons of the weak such as bluff, feint, and bluster. Nonstate actors such as guerrilla forces and terrorist entities depend even more on unpredictability. But when all countries in a region find security in uncertainty—particularly the middle powers that hitherto relied on or were forced to adhere to a transparent security system—then all possibility of order disappears and liminality reigns supreme.

In East Asia’s current liminal state, there are competing notions of order. Some are completely abstract (if country A were to do X and B to do Y and C to do Z, a new order would be born). Others are less ideas than power dynamics coalescing, as it were, beneath the radar.

The current U.S.-centric order in Northeast Asia, with Washington still asserting that a dangerous power vacuum would arise without a U.S. military presence, remains anchored in bilateral alliances with South Korea and Japan. But with both Seoul and Tokyo maneuvering for more independence, the U.S. doctrine of “strategic flexibility” appears designed more to deal with unpredictable allies than unpredictable adversaries. As the closer U.S.-Japanese military relationship suggests, bilateralism is by no means dead in East Asia. But a measure of liminality has crept into what had previously been a more stable set of obligations and expectations. South Korea’s commitment to “strategic flexibility” is uncertain; the nature of Japan’s military support for U.S. objectives in the region is ambiguous. The recent gubernatorial elections in Okinawa serve fair warning to Washington. Although the anti-U.S.-bases candidate lost, the new pro-U.S. governor immediately announced his intention to seek the closure of the island’s U.S. Marine Corps base within three years.

On the horizon, meanwhile, beckon various visions of a multilateral order. The United States has attempted its own versions of “coalitions of the willing” such as the Proliferation Security Initiative. And both liberal and conservative commentators have called for NATO to go global and incorporate U.S. allies in East Asia. At the other end of the spectrum, key Asian leaders such as Kim Dae Jung have spoken of an Asian version of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). But the prospects of institutionalizing the Six Party Talks into a multilateral venue to discuss broader security issues have dimmed in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear test.

An Asian CSCE remains a desirable option. And if the United States and North Korea were to find their way out of the current nuclear crisis, the region might again head in that direction. But this scenario remains rather abstract. A more likely order is already emerging subliminally: beneath the liminal uncertainty of regional relations. That emerging order is in some ways a reassertion of an older construct, namely the Sinocentrism that endured for centuries in East Asia.

Dragon vs. Eagle

Speculation that China will construct a new regional order in Northeast Asia has derived from two major sources: economics and polling data. On the economic side, China surpassed Britain in 2005 to become the world’s fourth largest economy. Also in 2005, China became Japan’s largest trading partner. (Two years earlier, China had become South Korea’s largest trading partner). China consumes more grain, meat, coal, and steel than the United States and is now the second leading consumer of oil. According to rather crude extrapolations, China is expected to surpass the United States economically sometime between 2020 and 2030.

China’s rapid economic growth, and its eager adoption of “soft power” foreign policy, has clearly influenced global public opinion. When the Uri Party took over the South Korean Parliament in April 2004, much was made of a poll that showed that a majority of the new lawmakers identified China as the “most important country” in determining South Korea’s foreign policy. In an article for YaleGlobal online, David Shambaugh cited an Australian poll, this time of popular sentiment, that showed the same eclipse of U.S. influence in Australia in favor of China. Through 2005, polls were showing high favorability ratings for China throughout Asia, even among countries such as Indonesia where anti-Chinese sentiment had previously been notorious.

Since 2005, China’s reputation has fallen a notch, at least in East Asia. South Korea and China have disputed over several trade issues, tussled over ancient territorial claims (Koguryo), and competed, perhaps more substantially, for gaining economic advantage in North Korea (as China moved into North Korea’s northeast with a 20-year lease of the port of Rajin to balanced South Korea’s establishment of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in southern North Korea). Japan and China have butted heads over oil deposits in disputed waters, over policy toward North Korea, and over Tokyo’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and there has been a rise of anti-Japanese sentiment within China itself. The economic numbers should also be taken with a grain of salt. If we look at per capita GDP, China ranks 110th in the world. More importantly, there is considerable doubt whether China can sustain its remarkable growth given resource constraints, growing inequality, popular protests, external pressure for currency revaluation, and so on.

We should not, however, be seduced into making predictions based on headline issues. The Koguryo and oil disputes are temporal issues. The challenges facing the Chinese economy, while significant, may simply postpone the day that China overtakes the United States (a trend that also depends on the trajectory of the U.S. economy, which faces its own endemic problems). Looking at the medium term, China’s economic size, its more sophisticated foreign policy, its growing (but by no means hegemonic) military, and the popularity of its culture (movies, language) suggest that the only coherent security order that will emerge in East Asia will be Sinocentric. The question is not so much what this dispensation will look like but how the United States will decide to deal with it.

First, the emerging Sinocentric order will owe little to the “clash of civilizations” thesis and the purported Confucian commonality of East Asian countries. It will be based foremost on China’s economic power and the overseas Chinese community (both the older trading community and the new cadre of engineers and scientists). This economic base will also depend on Beijing’s ability to serve as a broker for Russia’s energy resources not only to power China’s own industrial base but those of South Korea and Japan. And, as it increasingly replaces Japan as the hub of a transnational assembly line of production, China will integrate the region on terms it negotiates both with the foreign investors that manufacture and assemble goods using Chinese labor and with the final purchasers located largely in the United States and Europe.

China’s diplomatic efforts, while stymied so far on the Korean Peninsula, have been more successful in Southeast Asia (South China Sea), Central Asia (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), and South Asia (bilateral agreements with India and Pakistan). China’s military, while growing, has not yet been perceived as threatening (outside of Taiwan and a cadre of U.S. hawks). Beijing’s multilateral turn is motivated in part by a perceived need for a predictable set of foreign relations that can provide an environment within which the Chinese economy can maintain growth.

What a Sinocentric order might look like in East Asia depends a great deal on how the United States responds. A form of realpolitik currently prevails in Washington. The Kissinger legacy of viewing the U.S.-China relationship in a balance-of-power calculus lives on, with global terrorism substituting for the Soviet Union in the equation. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review maintains the rhetoric of congagement (containment plus engagement) with phrases about China’s “potential to compete militarily with the United States” juxtaposed with language describing China as a “partner in addressing common security challenges.” It is conceivable that this congagement could morph into a spheres-of-influence arrangement if China’s economic leverage over the United States intensifies (in much the same way that U.S. economic leverage over Britain led to the passing of the imperial torch). Influential thinkers, such as Anatol Lieven, have already endorsed a version of spheres of influence under the rubric of “ethical realism.”

Under such a power-sharing arrangement, China and the United States would each exert primary control in its own sphere of influence. China would thus gradually gain power at the expense of the United States in Central Asia, on the Korean Peninsula, and among certain Southeast Asian countries. Eventually, by expanding strategic flexibility, devolving military authority to Japan and South Korea, and maintaining focus on the Middle East, the United States would retreat from Northeast Asia under cover of “strategic disengagement” or a “retrograde maneuver” or some such euphemism. Washington is already attempting to establish a fallback containment ring by securing military agreements with India, the Philippines, and Australia.

Looking further into the future, Taiwan would eventually follow Hong Kong’s path into a “two systems, one country” resolution of the cross-Straits conflict. A reunified Korean Peninsula, its foreign policy strictly subordinated to the challenges of knitting together North and South economically and politically, would be effectively Finlandized. China, Japan, and Russia would settle their outstanding territorial disputes on the basis of cash settlements and trade concessions. And the region would construct some form of CSCE model based on Beijing’s understanding of cooperative security rather than Washington’s (emphasizing peaceful coexistence rather than intrusive human rights standards). Chinese principles of nonintervention—don’t mess with us and we’ll not mess with you—would emphasize stability over both democracy and popular strivings for human rights.

On the other hand, the United States could refuse to negotiate its loss of influence in East Asia. In such a scenario, Beijing and Washington would move from congagement toward open conflict, as “China-bashers” fuse anti-communism with fears of a “yellow peril” in some future administration. If global terrorism proves an illusory threat on which to justify U.S. hegemony worldwide, China may well return as a leading candidate.

East Asia will not remain in its current liminal state for long. Whether the region tilts toward the certainty associated with a new Cold War or toward the certainty of a China-centered cooperative security system is a matter for political, and not simply academic, debate.

A longer version of this article appeared as a paper at an October 19 conference in Washington, DC sponsored by the Korea Press Federation, Georgetown University, and Kyungnam University.

FPIF, December 13, 2006



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