As US President Donald Trump finishes up his five-country tour of East Asia this weekend — with stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines — there is increased international attention seems focused on the Korean peninsula. Indeed, tensions there have reached a boiling point during the first year of the Trump administration. The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been moving rapidly to enhance its ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities. The most dramatic example was North Korea’s test of a hydrogen bomb in September, resulting in a round of new United Nations Security Council sanctions. Pyongyang also continues its provocations through sustained and incrementally more provocative tests of its ballistic missiles, including two intermediate-range tests over the airspace of Japan. Magnifying these tensions even more is the loose and often contradictory rhetoric from the Trump administration, which seems to have ruled out diplomatic resolutions to the crisis.
Beyond the current situation in North Korea, more attention should be paid to the broader security situation in the region and strategies (or lack thereof) for addressing it. East Asia remains one of the most geostrategically important parts of the world and contains a significant proportion of humanity.
Less than one year into the Trump presidency, certain issues are becoming clear. Regional stakeholders, especially China, are aggressively attempting to chart their own course in East Asia and beyond in order to meet their strategic national interests. The US remains the pre-eminent military power in East Asia, and it will remain so in the short to medium term; however, Beijing is consistently chipping away at the patchwork of alliances and institutions built by Washington in the region. Indeed, China’s long-held goal of decoupling the US from its regional allies continues to be a primary driver for the security and defence establishment in Beijing. Notably, important investments in military modernization in China, combined with continued militarization and aggression in the East and South China Seas, will incrementally challenge the Americans’ ability to respond effectively to threats to its allies and partners in the region. Such allies, especially Japan and the Philippines, are likely also feeling more vulnerable to the growing military threats posed by China’s increasingly modern fighting force. These concerns are not limited to US treaty allies; long-standing partners of the US — such as Taiwan — are also wondering how Washington will respond to Beijing’s renewed assertiveness. Deeper military engagement between US and partner forces in the region is needed now more than ever.
Security challenges in East Asia
China continues to be the primary challenger to US primacy in East Asia. While China’s ascendancy and influence in the region predate Trump’s presidency, the apparent lack of a greater cohesive US strategy under Trump toward East Asia will work in China’s favour. The Communist Party of China is most concerned about the stability and legitimacy of its own regime, as well as the continued prosperity of the Chinese economy and the territorial integrity of modern-day China (both are key factors in maintaining party rule). China’s role and interests in East Asian security must be contextualized within these specific interests.
Tension on the Korean peninsula continues to dominate the diplomatic and security space in East Asia. Against this backdrop, Trump has been meeting with America’s two East Asian partners, Japan and South Korea; all agree that it is crucial to maintain — and increase — maximum pressure on the North Korean regime in order to dissuade Pyongyang from future provocations. North Korea’s behaviour has reached a worrisome level over the past six months with the two tests of intermediate-range ballistic missiles over Japan’s airspace — a new escalation that has increased regional anxiety, especially in Tokyo.
Despite the deteriorating situation on the Korean peninsula, the US military still enjoys primacy in East Asia. However, China continues to invest in its own military and is undergoing a significant reform that will likely make the People’s Liberation Army a more efficient and agile fighting force. As China continues to increase its annual military budget, the army will likely continue to seek to acquire top-tier technologies and capabilities to challenge the US in the region. Official Chinese figures say its annual military spending in 2016 was around $146.6 billion, but it is important to note that this amount does not necessarily reflect the true total that China has spent on modernizing its military and researching and developing new capabilities. In fact, the US Department of Defense estimated that China’s military spending was approximately $180 billion in 2015, and some non-governmental organizations say that figure is still too low.
Given the Communist Party’s rhetoric about the role of the US and its allies in East Asia (especially about freedom of navigation operations), it is clear that the party itself views China’s military actions as a legitimate means of returning to its own historical position of primacy in the region, and not as destabilizing moves, as many Western media outlets, academics and pundits claim. In fact, the party continues to maintain its firm message that it is the US military presence in the region that causes instability.
Partly for this reason, China will maintain (if not intensify) its military posture in the South China Sea and will vocally protest any perceived threats to its claims. Indeed, Beijing continues to ramp up the militarization of its manmade islands in the disputed area, despite the fact that these settlements have been delegitimized by international law.
While the South China Sea and instability on the Korean peninsula continue to dominate headlines, the situation in the East China Sea continues to deteriorate, with daily intrusions by Chinese ships and aircraft around the territorial waters and in airspace surrounding Japan’s Senkaku islands, which China claims. Indeed, according to figures from Japan’s Coast Guard, there were 122 intrusions by Chinese vessels into these territorial seas last year alone. In the same period, there were 752 instances of Chinese vessels — a virtual maritime militia, composed of coast guard, fishing and commercial ships — being identified within Japan’s contiguous zone around the islands. These figures debunk the notion that there has been a “cooling-off” period in the East China Sea as a result of a slight thaw in political relations between Tokyo and Beijing.
Economic and diplomatic considerations
Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is only one of several recent indicators that the country will be adopting a more inward-looking economic policy. Trump’s report on his trade policy agenda is littered with references suggesting that the world is about to witness (again) a more protectionist economy. Not the least of these references is an assertion that the administration will “defend U.S. national sovereignty over trade policy.” Japan and South Korea in particular can be forgiven for feeling they might be left high and dry by the emerging American trade policy. Both states are critical partners with which Trump must keep close economic and diplomatic engagement if the US wants to maintain stability in East Asia.
A general US retrenchment in economic diplomacy in the region has left a void that China has seized — and will continue to seize — the opportunity to fill, especially in its relationships with littoral states in Southeast Asia and other key players that are actively seeking foreign investment in order to fund infrastructure projects. China will continue to push what it deems “win-win” engagements with these states, all the while furthering its own economic and regime stability interests.
For lack of a better term, China is “alliance building” and has already established strong relationships with important ASEAN partners, including Thailand, Laos and Cambodia; it has also made significant inroads in the Philippines. Funding provided through Chinese-led institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative (for instance, via the Silk Road Fund) will further enhance the country’s economic and diplomatic relationships with important actors in the region, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, despite irritants in bilateral relations (namely, the South China Sea issues) and to the detriment of US influence.
Potential solutions and options for Canada
Regional states – such as Japan, Australia and India – are increasingly looking to partners beyond the US in order to pursue economic growth and security. China, with its funding institutions, has become a viable and logical alternative. As a result, and in the absence of a serious US trade strategy focused on East Asia, American economic and diplomatic influence in the region continues to wane. The lack of US involvement in the TPP will further challenge the ability of the US to economically engage with critical partners in the region in the medium to long term.
The security situation in East Asia can be summed up as an ongoing battle for influence between the US and other important players, mainly China. Economic, diplomatic and military opportunism during a time of perceived US retrenchment from the region will only serve to heighten the intensity of this battle, with potentially serious and real security implications for all involved parties.
Canada, as a Pacific nation and a close US ally, will be presented with some hard choices. There is a role for Canada, as a middle power, to play in preserving greater regional stability in East Asia. Adopting a carefully calibrated whole-of-East-Asia approach will allow Canada to further its national economic interests, while also protecting its crucial relationship with the US and promoting peace and the rule of law in the region.
As the second-largest economy in the world, China has emerged as one of the dominant economic powers in the region, and it presents economic opportunities that cannot be ignored. China will continue to use its bilateral trade and diplomatic relationships to grow its influence in East Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, and to build alliances through a combination of chequebook diplomacy and direct, relationship-building engagement.
Security cannot be ensured via a piecemeal and issue-based conflict resolution strategy. In order to establish a true counterweight to the destabilizing effects of North Korea’s and China’s activities, the US and its partners must take a multilateral and balanced approach to containing emerging threats.
Given the current direction of US foreign policy in East Asia, it is now more important than ever that Canada pursue a strategic vision in engaging with partners there. Strategic patience will be required of Canadian policy-makers, who must consider the full security and related implications of deepening economic relationships with China. As a close US partner that benefits greatly from US primacy, Canada must judiciously pursue its own national interests in East Asia while maintaining a healthy and productive partnership with the US, despite challenges presented by the Trump administration.
For these reasons, Canada should seek to engage more comprehensively with important regional players in East Asia, especially Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, as well as ASEAN. Such engagement cannot occur at a purely economic level; there must be also be tangible political-security engagement, preferably coupled with military-to-military exchanges and partnerships, whenever possible.
Canada must also adopt an “eyes-wide-open” approach to its engagement with China. Despite the significant cultural, social and economic benefits of engaging with China, strategic security challenges are presented by aggressively pursuing a closer economic engagement. Not the least of these concerns is the potential transfer of sensitive Canadian technologies to Chinese companies that are involved in defence or sensitive sector research and development.
Despite the vast differences between Canada’s and China’s economies, and the Chinese promises of untold benefits that would result from a free trade agreement between the countries, Canada must recognize it has much to offer to China (beyond economics), and Canadian policy-makers must leverage Canadian strengths in order to secure the best deal possible for Canada. Canada must also recognize the value of the country’s brand and the legitimacy it could provide to China by agreeing to a free trade treaty, an extradition treaty or both.
The US may currently be on the back foot in the battle for influence in East Asia. However, it is important to recognize that as a world power, the US, while its primacy is currently being challenged, is still a force to be reckoned with. Recognizing the shifts of power in the international system, Canada should seek to protect its values and interests by pursuing a multilateral strategy of engagement with key partners in East Asia. Such engagement will pay dividends for Canada in the years to come — and will form the foundation of Canada’s continued relevance in what will increasingly become an Asian century.
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