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Regional Security in East Asia

Panel Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Former Foreign Minister of Australia and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, to World Peace Forum, International Security in a Changing World: Innovation, Coordination, Development, Tsinghua University, Beijing, 28 June 2013

The regional security environment in East Asia is as delicate as it has been for a long time, with three sets of issues creating tensions that have no easy solutions and which will demand careful management for a long time to come:

  • First, there is what might be described as the ‘G2’ issue: despite the clearly stated preference of both sides for a cooperative rather than confrontational future, the tensions which seem bound to continue give the extraordinarily rapid economic and military rise of China, and the U.S.’s apparent unwillingness to yield any of its established authority in the region in response.
  • Second, there is the continuing problem of dealing with the provocations of North Korea and securing the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.  Associated with that is the challenge of avoiding anything like a nuclear arms race in the region, and making progress on general nuclear disarmament, an issue much more imperative and urgent than most policymakers and publics currently recognise.
  • Third, there are multiple, unresolved territorial disputes, most immediately dangerously in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

China and the U.S.The most important geopolitical question in the world, not just the region, right now is how China and the United States will each react to the dramatic shift now occurring in their relative economic, and eventually military, power.

As to how China will behave, as difficult as it is for outsiders to comment on these matters without appearing either ignorant or impertinent, the possible external scenarios over the next decade range from actively pursuing zero-sum power politics aimed at dominating the hemisphere and beyond, to engaging strategically with the US and other partners in Asia to sustain and enhance a rules-based international order.

Opinions differ about whether there has, or has not, been a ‘new assertiveness’ evident in Chinese foreign policy evident over the last two or three years in the South China Sea and elsewhere – whether there is anything very new, just how assertive it has been, and if it has been assertive, how much of this has been linked to the transient domestic politics of leadership transition. It seems reasonable to assume that President Xi Jinping and his team would much prefer a non-confrontational path (and we heard strong reaffirmations of that in the speeches of Vice President Li Yuancho and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in their speeches to this Forum) at least if  the rest of the world – above all the U.S – pursue and maintain a policy of cooperative engagement. But it will be very interesting to hear the views of our Chinese colleagues on this.

As to how the US will respond, there seems plenty of reason to hope that the US will give some strategic space to China through a policy of mutually accommodating cooperation, with this being very much the instincts of President Obama and his administration. But the much heralded military “pivot” to Asia, and much continuing “dominance” and “primacy” rhetoric coming out of Washington suggest that this is a relationship that could end in tears unless very carefully handled indeed. It may be that both the “pivot” and the “primacy” rhetoric are  more symbolic than substantive in their significance, but in international relations words can be bullets, and we all have to be very careful how we use them.

The best expression I have ever heard of the mindset required in the U.S.  was a comment by Bill Clinton at a private function I attended in October 2002, after he had left the Presidency:

The U.S. has two choices about how we use the great and overwhelming military and economic power we now possess. We can try to use it to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. Or we can use it to try to create a world in which we will be comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.

The trouble is that I haven’t heard Bill Clinton, or anyone else, use such explicit language in public at any time since then: to do so would apparently still be beyond the tolerance limits of the domestic political environment. Words don’t matter so much if actions are consistent with cooperative engagement rather than confrontation – but in international relations, just as negative words can be very damaging, positive words can be very helpful.

North Korea and Nuclear Disarmament. North Korea’s nuclear behaviour – with continued testing in defiance of the Security Council  – has been provocative, erratic, and irresponsible.  But it would be wrong to assume that it is completely irrational, or in any way suicidal.

As someone who was involved as Australia’s Foreign Minister, albeit at some distance, in the negotiation and implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework, I am less persuaded than some others that all the blame for the breakdown of that agreement belongs to Pyongyang, and I don’t believe it is completely impossible to think of another denuclearization agreement ever being reached. We have recently seen some encouraging moderation in North Korean language in this respect.

What is important is that all North Korea’s neighbours – including China –  continue to make very clear their displeasure at the indefensible elements of Pyongyang’s behaviour, but  otherwise stay calm and measured in their responses.  It is not clear that there are any other options than the familiar trio of containment, deterrence and keeping the door open for negotiations. It is important that we all keep trying to break down over time the siege mentality which has afflicted North Korea’s leadership, and pass up no dialogue opportunity.  

More generally, what is crucial is that North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear capability not be used as an excuse by anyone in the region to walk away from a serious commitment to nuclear non-proliferation – and to disarmament. There are some troubling minority currents in this respect in South Korea, and even Japan, which must be resisted.[1]

It is also crucial that either Korean peninsula tensions, or the larger geopolitical tensions between China and the US, not stand in the way of steady progress by the nuclear-armed states toward the ultimate elimination of their nuclear weapons stockpiles: there is a very real risk that so long as anyone has nuclear weapons they are bound one day to be used, by accident or miscalculation if not deliberate design.

I should say that there are some questions being asked of China in this respect.  Is it the case that, in response to what Chna perceives as the superior conventional capability of the U.S., the destabilizing impact of potential new generation long-range conventional weapons, and of the commitment of the U.S. and its North East Asian allies to further developing ballistic missile defence, China may in fact be beginning to move away from its longstanding position of minimal deterrence, and even ‘no first use’? It would be helpful to have further reassurance on these matters.

Although there are some welcome steps now being taken to move toward the beginnings of  a multilateral disarmament process (including internal P5 discussions on how to report progress toward disarmament, and  the establishment by the UN in Geneva of the Open Ended Working Group), China – along with other nuclear armed states – is showing great reluctance to reduce or even freeze its arsenal in the absence of further major disarmament moves by the Big Two, the US and Russia, who together possess around 95% of the world’s stockpile.

But getting further movement from Russia and the U.S. is going to be very difficult.Despite President Obama’s restated commitment, in his Berlin speech this month, to further significantly reducing the arsenals of deployed strategic weapons, and his willingness to put its European-based tactical weapons on the table, and despite the absurdity of maintaining Cold War postures twenty years after the Cold War’s end, major movement will not be easy to achieve, with Russia practising its own brand of assertive nationalism. It will be important for the U.S. to find ways of defusing, both with Russia and China itself, concerns about imbalances in missile defence and conventional (including long range strike) capability.

It would be very helpful in this respect – as  politically difficult as this may again be domestically for the U.S. – to accept, at least tacitly, what it has not so far been prepared to, that  (as has been recently proposed  in a Washington CSIS report)   its nuclear relationship with China is one of “mutual vulnerability”, meaning in practice that the U.S. “should plan and posture its force and base its own policy on the assumption that an attempted U.S. disarming first strike, combined with U.S. missile defences, could not reliably deny a Chinese nuclear retaliatory strike on the United States”.[2]

Territorial Disputes.   The remaining sources of security tension in East Asia are the territorial disputes, all with foundations deeply rooted in historical discord, between China and Japan over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, Japan and South Korea over the Dokdo/ Takeshima outcrop, China and its ASEAN neighbours over the islands, outcrops and waters of the South China Sea, and of course – although this situation, happily, continues to be much calmer than it has been in the past – over the status of Taiwan.

The critical need in the Sea of Japan and East China Sea cases is for the parties in each case not to do anything to inflame the situation by taking military measures of any kind, and not further engage in provocative nationalist drum-beating and chest-beating. Ideally these matters would be resolved by the International Court of Justice, but if that is unachievable, and competing sovereignty claims cannot be resolved, then there should  simply be agreement to disagree about the status of the territory in question, with if possible, the  negotiation of agreements on issues like fisheries access.

Tensions over the South China Sea threaten to be the most serious of all, and here it is even more crucial that all the parties with competing interests strive hard to defuse the situation.  It was generally encouraging to hear the words of Foreign Minister Wang Yi to this effect at this Forum. But the point must be made that China has a particular responsibility in this respect because of the very broad reach of the “nine-dashed line” with which it has described its interests.  Even if China could reasonably claim sovereignty over all of the land features in the South China Sea, and all of them were habitable, the Exclusive Economic Zones that went with them would not include anything like all of the waters within its nine-dashed-line map. This has provoked fears, not unfounded, that China is not prepared to act within the constraints set by the Law of the Sea Convention, and is determined to make some broader history-based claim.

It would certainly be helpful if China were now to play an active and constructive role, as Foreign Minister Wang has suggested at this Forum that it will, in negotiating the  multilateral Code of Conduct, to build on the earlier declaratory document agreed with ASEAN. But it will also be very important for China, sooner rather than later, to define precisely what its claims actually are, with reference to the understood and accepted principles of the International Law of the Sea Convention, of which it is a signatory. Only then can any credence be given to China’s stated position – not unattractive in principle – in favourr of resource-sharing arrangements for disputed territory pending final resolution of competing claims.

The US, for its part,  could help to move things in a the right direction by itself finally  ratifying  the Law of the Sea Convention, whose principles must be the foundation for peaceful resource sharing – in the South China Sea as elsewhere. Demanding that others do as one says is never as productive as asking them to do as one does.

When one considers the sensitivity and gravity of the issues I have summarised, and the difficulty of some of the policy choices that will have to be made if these various volatile situations are not to blow up, I think we are going to be coming to conferences and discussions like this for many more years to come, and I thank our hosts for making this one so stimulating and productive.



[1] As to the position of those U.S. allies presently sheltering – or believing they are sheltering – under the umbrella of extended nuclear deterrence, undoubtedly what they could most contribute to making nuclear disarmament happen would be to make clear their acceptance of a much reduced role for nuclear weapons in their protection. So long as South Korea, Japan, and others in the region (and key European allies) continue to insist that the nuclear option be kept open for a variety of non-nuclear threat contingencies, notwithstanding the U.S.’s manifest capacity for the indefinitely foreseeable future to deal with any of them through the application of conventional military force, they are contributing nothing to the achievement of a nuclear-free world. Australia has made clear that it supports the Obama Administration’s desire to move toward a declaratory position that the ‘sole purpose’ of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack: we could be even more helpful by urging the U.S. to adopt not just a “sole purpose” but a “No First Use” posture.

[2] CSIS (2013) Nuclear Weapons and U.S.-China Relations: A Way Forward,  p.18. Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington http://csis.org/files/publication/130307_Colby_USChinaNuclear_Web.pdf: the  Group’s members were divided on whether the U.S. should formally and publicly  acknowledge “mutual vulnerability”, largely on the ground that this might worry regional allies, but united on the substance.  This is also a recommendation of Arbatov A and Dvorkin V (2013) The Great Strategic Triangle. The Carnegie Papers http://carnegie.ru/2013/04/01/great-strategic-triangle/fvbx