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Asia-Pacific Security: China's Conditional Multilateralism and Great Power Entente

Authored by Dr. Jing-dong Yuan. | January 2000

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The last few years have witnessed the emergence of what may be called Asia-Pacific multilateralism?the multiplication of channels of dialogues on regional security issues at both governmental and nongovernmental (?track two?) levels. It has been acknowledged and increasingly accepted among both policymakers and the academic community that a multilateral approach to Asia-Pacific security issues, with its emphasis on confidence-building, preventive diplomacy, and conflict resolution, can make important contributions to the maintenance of regional stability and the promotion of the region?s economic development and restoration of prosperity in the aftermath of the recent financial crisis. This security-building effort reflects a genuine belief that through regularized dialogues and consultation, existing and potential regional conflicts can be more effectively managed (if not resolved) within the parameters of agreed-upon norms and established procedures, without recourse to threats, coercion, and/or the use of force.

The extent to which this emerging Asia-Pacific multilateralism can succeed as an effective mechanism in promoting Asia-Pacific cooperative security depends on a host of factors. Realist cautions against the ?false promises? of neoliberal institutionalism aside, the perspectives and attitudes of major powers toward regional multilateral security dialogues can be important factors in determining their chance of success as viable supplements to traditional bilateral security arrangements and the regional balance of power. That the very catalyst of Asia-Pacific multilateralism can be said to have arisen from uncertainty aboutthe region?s future security outlook in anticipation of U.S. military drawdown, and hence a potential ?power vacuum? inviting aspiring regional powers such as China and Japan, further underlines the importance of getting China actively and positively involved in the security- building endeavor.

This monograph traces the evolution of China?s thinking on multilateralism and regional security cooperation and discusses some of the factors that have influenced Beijing?s approaches over the past decade. While China?s general attitude has shifted from suspicion to qualified endorsement, it has yet to demonstrate that it accepts the principles of multilateralism. Indeed, if anything, Beijing is more interested in great power relationships even as it publicly attacks power politics. The ambivalence reflects, to some extent, the uncertainty with which China seeks its place in the Asia-Pacific and the inevitable interactions with other major players. The analysis offered here has important policy implications for the United States, in particular with regard to its East Asian military strategy of peacetime engagement through forward deployment, crisis prevention, and fighting and winning war should deterrence fail.

The monograph is organized as the following. The next section examines the evolution of China?s post-Cold War security agenda in the Asia-Pacific and its gradual endorsement of what can be termed conditional multilateralism characterized by low degree of institutionalization. This is followed by discussions of Beijing?s approaches to the South China Sea territorial disputes and the management of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.Clearly, China is more interested in great power concert arrangements in which it seeks to play a prominent role in regional affairs; multilateralism in this context only serves to provide an alternative to the existing bilateral military alliances that the United States maintains with its key allies. These remain the core security structures in the region in the absence of Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)-type security institutions. Finally, the author discusses the implications of Chinese policy for U.S. interests and military strategy, and points to the need to resume and maintain stable and regularized Sino-U.S. military contacts as a key component of the U.S. policy of engagement.


How do we assess Chinese perspectives on and approaches to multilateralism? One can examine this aspect along two different dimensions. One is the presence of China in the various multilateral processes/institutions. The other is the acceptance of multilateralism as a norm of dealing with regional security issues. On the surface, China has been a rather consistent, if only passive, participant in various multilateral forums as practiced in the Asia-Pacificcontext:

  1. ad hoc cooperation on specific disputes and conflict resolution (e.g. Cambodian peace process, the South China Sea workshop);
  2. ?sub-regional? cooperation (ASEAN);
  3. formal governmental efforts at the regional level (ARF);
  4. track-two programs (CSCAP); and
  5. U.N.-sponsored and multilateral institutions and processes having a bearing on regional security issues. 182 On the other hand, Beijing has demonstrated a clearly variegated approach toward multilateralism; in other words, there are different ?scripts? or versions of Chinese multilateralism in different environments (e.g., U.N. as opposed regional forums), and for different issues (e.g., economic as opposed to security). Conditional multilateralism represents but one version of what may be a whole repertoire of Chinese strategies of presenting its foreign policy.

To say that China has consistently held dubious, if not hostile, attitudes toward multilateral institutions and regime-generated rules may be simplistic and even misleading. What is clear, though, is that China?s approach to multilateralism betrays a degree of varigatedness and selectiveness. While Chinese policy declarations have tended to be all things to all, Chinese behaviors in various international organizations have demonstrated a gradual movement toward accepting the norms and principles of existing regimes rather than challenging them head on. Samuel Kim?s studies of Chinese behaviors in international organizations show that the degree of Chinese acceptance of and compliance with norms, principles, and rules may be a function of the extent to which the so-called ?global learning,? which induces ?global thinking,? is actually taking place. Positive learning can be facilitated through positive participatory experiences. However, there is a strong utilitarian element in the Chinese acceptance of the rules, norms, and principles. To the extent that existing international order facilitates China?s goals of modernization (e.g., aid, and investment and technology transfer from the capitalist world), there is no need to challenge it. The learning process is important in that both domestic andinternational variables interact in shaping the leadership?s cognitive maps of what China?s interests, role, and policy should be.183

China?s fundamental attitudes toward multilateral security cooperation may be better understood as a consistent reflection of its holistic approach to the larger issues of national interests and the best means to promote them. Beijing?s earlier suspicion and concern over regional multilateral enterprises have all but been removed, thanks to ASEAN?s role in the process. China?s endorsement, on the other hand, may be a courtesy to its neighbors but more as a realization that refusal to participate incurs costs image-wise. But China is more interested in a concert of powers managing regional security issues. This falls in line with its recently adopted policy of maintaining stable great-power relations as fundamental to realizing other policy objectives, including stability and a better chance of handling the Taiwan issue. In this regard, multilateralism, if it has any value, would remain less important than the balance of powers and the bilateral mode of managing interstate relations. Given the complexity in the Asia-Pacific region, one may find it hard to simply dismiss Chinese approaches as self-serving, which can be summarized as containing the following key elements: stable major-power relations; nonconfrontational; nonalignment against third party; dialogue and peaceful resolution of disputes; noninterference of domestic affairs; equal consultation; mutual security as opposed to security through military alliance; and economic security and prosperity. 184

Military diplomacy and cooperation range from alliance relationships to minimum confidence-building measures the purpose of which is to avoid the risk of war. The current Sino-U.S. military relationship is somewhere in between. It is neither an alliance relationship nor a direct adversarial one. There are important differences in security outlooks and military strategies between the two countries. The United States sees its continued military presence andactive engagement in regional security through bilateral defense alliance as crucial to regional stability. It relies on quick reaction and the ability to intervene as an important post-Cold War strategic requirement. The Chinese, on the other hand, want to regain regional prominence and freedom in dealing with what they regard either as domestic or purely bilateral issues. China?s recent change of attitude toward multilateral security structures and an emphasis on security cooperation partnerships run directly opposed to U.S. reliance on bilateral security alliance and forward military deployments.Taking a cue from the Gulf War, the PLA is actively modernizing its military forces to serve as an indispensable instrument of diplomacy. At the same time, the two do not see eye-to-eye with regard to such issues of transparency and regional security frameworks. Given that China and the United States have different strategic objectives, interests, and priorities, and given the past uneven development of the bilateral military relationship, what lessons can be learned and what conditions are necessary to enhance cooperation in areas of common interests and minimize and manage policy differences and avoid potential conflicts?

The Sino-U.S. military relationship has undergone over two decades of uneven development. There have been periods and areas of better cooperation and ones of suspicion and confrontation. This monograph suggests that for a more stable bilateral military relationship to develop, longer-term strategies must be formulated that emphasize engagement, exchange, and better understanding of each other?s interests, priorities, and policy options. Particularly important may be greater contacts between the two militaries at the officer corps level where both sides are of increasingly similar makeup in terms of education and selection criteria and share the ideals of professionalism. Such a relationship cannot be left untended to be swayed by the vicissitude of bilateral relations during a crucial period of transition in international politics and adjustments forboth. It must be constantly nurtured. That remains, perhaps, one of the greatest challenges ahead.


182. Evans, ?The New M ultilateralism in Asia-Pacific,? pp. 256-258.

183. Samuel S. Kim, ?Thinking Globally in Post-Mao China,? Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 27, No. 2, May 1990, pp. 191-209.

184. ?Chinese Foreign Minister Stipulates Government Positions at the ARF,? Renmin ribao, overseas edition, July 28, 1998, p. 6; Yan Xuetong, ?Zhongguo de xinanquanguan yu anquan hezuo gouxiang [China?s New Security View and Contemplations on Security Cooperation],? Xiandai guoji guanxi [Contemporary International Relations], No. 11, November 1997, pp. 28-32.