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China aims to forge new norms, order for East Asia

By Yu Minhao | 2015-09-11 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

China-ASEAN economic ties have grown stronger since the beginning of the 21st century.


In the 1990s, foreign scholars took great interest in the rise of China. Of all the themes related to the debate, scholars especially emphasized the effects China's rise would have on the extant international order.

After the outbreak of the global financial crisis in 2008, China's status as an emerging great power became increasingly prominent. As the world began to think about how to deal with the changing landscape of international politics, Western theorists offered a variety of strategies for responding to China's growing clout, including engagement, balancing, containment and various combinations of the three.

This article intends to analyze the relationship between China and existing order in East Asia from the vantage point of an interactive model. East Asia is central to the analysis because it is both a starting point of and a major theatre for interactions between China and the international community. In its broad sense, East Asia includes China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and the 10 ASEAN (Association of Southeast Nations) countries.

This article focuses on the role of regional diplomacy in Chinese, Japanese and South Korean foreign policies. Based on that, the author will explore the possibility of forging a stable regional order out of trilateral interaction between the three countries.

Admittedly, ASEAN is in the driver seat of regional cooperation. Nonetheless, judging from economic influences and other aspects of national strength, it is the trilateral relations between China, Japan, and South Korea that will determine the outlook for the regional order. Assuming that there is a causal relation between China's rise and the ongoing transformation of the regional order, that relationship is very likely to be mediated by trilateral interactions between the three countries.

Regional structural transformation
Since the beginning of the 21st century, the rapid growth of China's power has transformed regional order in East Asia in profound ways.

One of the primary changes to the status quo is the security situation. To most foreign observers, China endangers peace with jingoistic policies in sovereignty disputes over the Diaoyu Islands and South China Sea. On the other side, Chinese scholars accused the US of sabotaging regional security. In 2012, the Obama administration announced a "pivot to Asia" and started to sow discord among countries in the region.

Encouraged by US strategic rebalancing, some East Asian countries mistakenly believe that they can use support from the world's leading power to leverage more benefits from China. Prior to its "pivot to Asia," the US had already begun ramping up its involvement in Asia in 2007. Most East Asian countries applauded the strategy and collaborated with the Obama administration to bring about a US-centered security order.

Another way that China's rise is restructuring the regional order is by nurturing the economic dependence of East Asian nations. Many neighboring countries worry that an increasingly powerful China will threaten their national defense and security. Nonetheless, they are uniformly positive toward China's economic growth given that it provides a larger market, more investments and commercial opportunities to their own business sectors. It is an undeniable fact that most East Asian countries have become more dependent on trade with China since 2000. Thus, two systems come into concurrent existence—a US-centered regional security mechanism and a China-centered trade network. Though it has the potential to negatively affect regional stability, this state of affairs is inevitable to a certain degree. It is inadvisable for stakeholders to maintain or reinforce the status quo.

Comparable to two diametrically opposing vectors, the two systems already impede regional integration. In the long term, every country in the region will suffer if the situation remains unchanged. To foster regional stability and integration, strengthening economic relations is not enough. Considering the persistent adverse effects of realpolitik, it is imperative to open up a new front.

Forging consensus on norms
In addition to realpolitik, balance of power, neo-liberalism and common interest, norms are a pivotal factor in the formation of a new regional order.

Obviously, China, Japan and South Korea have different priorities for regional cooperation. For Japan, East Asia is a component of its Asia-Pacific agenda. South Korea focuses on security cooperation in Northeast Asia. China intends to foster a cooperative mechanism with a distinct local character. Naturally, the three countries tend to take different stands in forging a new regional order. It is important to negotiate a set of regional norms that are acceptable to all without jeopardizing the interest and stance of any country.

One example of China's approach to building a new regional order is its consistent endorsement of ASEAN's leadership in regional development and recognition of the ASEAN Way's role in regulating member nations and coordinating organizational affairs. At the heart of the ASEAN Way is noninterventionism, as pointed out by Yoneji Kuroyanagi, a renowned scholar of international affairs.

In addition to noninterventionism, China's blueprint for the new regional order also entails respect for cultural diversity, recognition of different development models and democratization of international relations. These components have remained fairly consistent in different versions of regional diplomatic agendas adopted by China's Foreign Ministry, though each has been prioritized to a different extent depending on the circumstances. In the 1990s, respect for diversity replaced noninterventionism as the foremost concern of China's foreign policy. Concomitant with the popularization of the "harmonious world" proposal, China's regional diplomacy has shifted toward forging a "harmonious East Asia" since 2005.

Apparently, China's perception of international and regional order has shifted in tandem with the transformation of domestic and global circumstances. The Chinese government is flexible in negotiating  commonly agreed norms and order for East Asia.

China's blueprint for a new regional order shares a rationale with the ASEAN Way, deemphasizing the role of institutions and stressing step-by-step progress, whereas Japan and South Korea pay close heed to setting regulations and building institutions. The three countries also disagree on regional economic order. This is understandable since corporations in the three countries hold different positions in the global supply chain. Currently, Chinese companies only play a secondary role in the chain, while their counterparts in developed economies are the shaping forces of global economy. Regional economic integration is contingent upon transformation of division of labor forged by multinational enterprises.

On the other side, the three countries do have common ground. Despite its emphasis on setting regulations and establishing institutions, Japan sees transnational cooperation on technological and economic development in a positive light.

In stark contrast, the US is adamant about trade liberalization and facilitation. In terms of agenda-setting at APEC forums, China, Japan and ASEAN countries are all inclined to balance free trade and investment with technological and economic partnerships. In addition, most East Asian countries, including Japan, welcomed China's proposal on respecting diversity. In order to build a new regional order, the first step is to negotiate a set of norms that are acceptable to all through interaction not coercion. Considering the coexistence of consensus and conflict, regional cooperation can only be carried forward in a prudent, gradual manner.

Yu Minhao is a faculty member at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business.