Security Challenges in Asia
There follows a brilliant meditation on strategic and diplomatic interactions in Southeast Asia, including the South China Sea (SCS) by Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary of the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ambassador Kausikan delivered these remarks (minus the expanded comment on "freedom of navigation" in italics) at a conference in Tokyo.
Security Challenges in Asia
Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan
My perspective is that of a small country in Southeast Asia. Small countries look at the world very differently. Let me try to explain the difference by reference to two issues: the maritime disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) and the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’. What they have in common is what I consider the main security challenge of our times: dealing with China.
The ‘Indo-Pacific’ is a concept that has become fashionable, particularly in two big countries: Japan and India. It may well make sense to you, but from my perspective it is a rather abstract concept. To a small country, the geographical scope is too vast and too vague to be meaningful as a geopolitical concept. The ‘Indo-Pacific’ seems to me to be a euphemism for the “values diplomacy” that Prime Minister Abe used to talk about. Perhaps he has ceased to do so, at least in public, because the values in question, democracy, freedom and human rights, are protean terms, essentially contested concepts where a superficial consensus – often only of vocabulary-- masks basic and sometimes irreconcilable differences of interpretation.
More fundamentally, ‘values diplomacy’ seems itself a euphemism for a diplomacy whose primary focus is concern about China. This is not a game that any Southeast Asian country will regard with great enthusiasm. I do not mean to suggest that we are not concerned about China. We are of course concerned as our region is contiguous to China, perhaps even more so than big countries. China poses unique challenges to Singapore. But our responses are different.
There is a school of thought that believes concern about China’s increasingly assertive behaviour will make ASEAN naturally gravitate towards the US and its allies. This is true, but only to a degree. You will misinterpret developments in Southeast Asia if you lose sight of this fact. Concern over China has opened new diplomatic opportunities for the US and Japan in Southeast Asia. This has been generally welcomed by ASEAN. But to small countries fated by geography to live in the midst of great power competition which has been the situation of Southeast Asia for centuries, balancing, hedging and band-waggoning are not alternatives. We see nothing contradictory in pursuing all three courses of action simultaneously. To do so is built into our diplomatic DNA by centuries of sometimes bitter experiences.
Some years ago, I asked a senior Vietnamese official what leadership changes meant for Vietnam’s relations with China. Every Vietnamese leader, he replied, must be able to stand up to China and get along with China and if anyone thinks this cannot be done at the same time, he does not deserve to be a leader. To various degrees this is true of all Southeast Asian countries. It was a very distinguished American who famously said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of inferior minds. He ought to have been a Southeast Asian because this is an aphorism that countries in our region would do well to always keep in mind. The two ASEAN members who currently seem to have forgotten this basic lesson of Southeast Asian history, Cambodia and the Philippines, may well come to regret it.
The idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ seems to have arisen from the common cast of mind of Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Modi. There is certainly a convergence of interests between Japan and India. But I believe translating the concept into a consistent policy will eventually prove disappointing. India is an ancient civilization that is not going to define itself in relation to anything but itself or allow itself to become a chip in anybody’s strategic game. Japan too is an ancient civilization but one that in one way or another has always defined itself in relation to China, perhaps too much so.
The strategic attention of a continental-sized and complicated country like India will be more naturally inwardly directed. If there is a consistent outward focus, it is directed to the west towards Pakistan in which India’s concerns about Pakistan’s relationship China is only one factor, and not necessarily the most important factor. ‘Looking East’ will at best always be sporadic. That in any case is the experience of ASEAN’s relationship with India.
The Cold War had one virtue: clarity of structure. Irrespective of where we stood on the ideological divide, and even if we pretended to be non-aligned as Singapore did, there was never much doubt as to how to position ourselves. The post-Cold War international system lacks such stark definition. China is not an enemy. But is China a friend? What does ‘friend’ mean anyway? Chinese friendship can sometimes be as overwhelming as Chinese enmity. The US is certainly a friend. But it can be a very intrusive friend, too often unable to resist the temptation to whip the heathen along the path of righteousness.
What kind of power is China? There is no clear answer. On a global scale I do not think that China is clearly revisionist. To be sure, China has no strong reason to love an international order that it regards, not without justification, as heir to the order it holds responsible for what every Chinese schoolchild knows as ‘a hundred years of humiliation’. It was never very realistic to expect China to passively be a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in an order it had little say in establishing. But that very same order facilitated China’s re-emergence as a major power. China is arguably the chief beneficiary of the post-Cold War international order. It has no strong reason to kick over the table and seek radical revisions of the existing order. Beijing wants its new status acknowledged. But that is not the same thing as being revisionist. What exactly it does mean is difficult to define, even for China itself. Hence, the complexities of our times.
The US now clearly needs help to maintain international order. But after the Cold War there is no over-riding strategic imperative for any major power to accept US leadership, except on an ad hoc basis. In any case, who can now offer help? The G-7 or G-20 can perhaps loosely coordinate economic policy but are not coherent strategic actors. Europe is tangled in knots of its own making. Japan, the ROK and Australia can only help regionally and the latter two already not without some ambivalence. When China develops a credible second strike capability, Japan too must wonder about the credibility of US extended deterrence and hence about unconditional acceptance of US leadership.
The American people are themselves now reluctant to bear any burden, pay any price or meet any hardship to maintain international order: Donald Trump and Bernie Saunders are drinking from the same political well. The international order is now fraying at its edges, ‘a suit that no longer fits ‘ to borrow a phrase from Fu Ying, once my counterpart in the PRC Foreign Ministry, with whom I otherwise do not usually agree. But there is no clear or viable alternative to what has been termed the liberal international order. It was not very ‘liberal’ if you disagreed with one aspect or another of it, but I shan’t quarrel over terminology.
The uncertainties are primarily focused on US-China relations. It is a relationship that defies easy characterization. Profound interdependence of a new type coexists with deep strategic mistrust. The same could be said of Sino-Japanese relations or China-India relations or even EU-Russia relations. But US-China relations have a unique impact, particularly in East Asia where the US and China are now groping towards a new modus vivendi with each other and with other countries in the region. Neither finds it easy. Neither really yet knows what exactly they want from each other or must concede to the other.
The SCS has emerged as something of a proxy for the adjustments underway between the US and China. I do not think either is looking for trouble. War by design is highly improbable. Despite their bluster, China’s leaders know that war with the US can only have one outcome and place the CCP’s most vital interest—its hold on power – in great jeopardy. China is not reckless. President Xi Jinping is a ‘princeling’; the CCP is his patrimony and I don’t think he will gamble with it. But rivalry is intrinsic to any major power relationship and nether will forswear pursuing their interests, at times robustly.
The CCP is today confronted with fundamental questions about itself as it embarks on complex second phase of reforms. These reforms must square the circle: give the market a larger role in crucial areas of the economy to maintain competitiveness, while preserving central political control by the Party. Can it be done? No one really knows. Social and labour unrest are endemic at the local level. The anti-corruption campaign has unsettled CCP cadres in every sector. But we should not assume failure. Unlike the former CPSU, the CCP has proven to be an extremely adaptable creature, the latest and most successful iteration of a series of political experiments in search of wealth and power to resist western predations dating from the late Qing dynasty.
President Xi Jinping has termed the CCP’s role as leading the “Great Rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation after a century of weakness and humiliation. But the outcome of reforms, even if completely successful, will be slower growth, as the CCP has itself acknowledged. The “Great Rejuvenation” must therefore be as much, if not more, outwardly than internally directed. Externally, it is increasingly an essentially revanchist narrative. Herein lies the importance of the SCS to China. Put simply, it is the least risky way of putting some shreds of meat on the bare bones of the historical narrative by which the CCP justifies its right to rule.
The US defines its interests in the SCS in terms of upholding international law and freedom of navigation (FON). These are important interests but not of the same order as the CCP’s primary interest which is existential: the legitimacy and ultimately the survival of the CCP. The US has made clear that the US-Japan alliance covers the Senkakus; it has been ambiguous about the US-Philippines alliance, and hence in effect made clear, that it does not cover the disputed areas in the SCS. War in support of the principal US East Asian ally is credible, if unlikely. War over rocks, shoals and reefs would be absurd.
I doubt that China can be deterred from stopping its reclamation activities and deploying military assets on the artificial islands it is creating. But I doubt too that China can deter the US from operating in the SCS. Military assets that cannot be used are a weak deterrent. To use them to deny access must evoke a US response. This confronts the CCP with Hobson’s choice: escalate and risk war or at least serious conflict which will jeopardise CCP rule; or respond weakly which will expose the hollowness of the “Great Rejuvenation” which will also shake confidence in CCP rule. The CCP will not willingly place itself in such an invidious position.
China’s bluster masks this dilemma. Beijing has carefully kept each action in the SCS below a threshold that must draw a response from even the most reluctant of US administrations. Miscalculations and accidents can of course happen. If an accident occurs, the highly nationalistic public opinion that the CCP both cultivates and fears could lead Beijing down a path it does not want to travel. But the probability of accidents can be minimized. China has of late taken a more positive attitude towards rules of engagement for unplanned encounters at sea and in the air, not just in the Western Pacific where the US and China have reached formal agreement on a basic CUES, but also in the SCS. If we look past the chest-thumping by both sides, the probability of US-China competition in the SCS becoming ritualised is not to be discounted.
I think the process is already underway. In my view there are less differences between the US and China on FON than immediately meets the eye. I think differences over what military activities are acceptable in another country’s EEZ reflect differences of capability rather than irreconcilable differences of concept. As capabilities grow, concepts can converge, and as concepts converge so also may interests. Time does not permit be to elaborate this in detail, but I would be happy to do so during our discussion.
[Even with regard to FON there may be less difference between US and Chinese interests than immediately meets the eye. China says that is has not and will never impede FON in the SCS. This is credible in so far as the merchant marine is concerned because China too is a trading nation. The US riposte is that there is a difference between FON granted by the leave and favour of a major power and FON as a right enshrined in international law. This is true. But the US is not a party to UNCLOS and says it considers UNCLOS or at least parts of the regime, customary international law and abides by it on that basis. It does not take an extreme sceptic to consider this another way of saying that the US too grants FON by its leave and favour, particularly when some American interpretations of FON have been questionable, for example when it tried to assert the right to stop and search vessels on the high seas under the Proliferation Security Initiative after 9/11. One may have more trust in one major power’s leave and favour than another’s, but that is a matter of political choice and not international law. ]
[There is at present a difference of interpretation between the US and China over what military activities are permissible under UNCLOS in another country’s EEZ. But is this an irreconcilable difference of concept or does the apparent difference of concept only reflect a difference of capability? I am not so sure. In 2014 China sent an uninvited surveillance vessel to the RIMPAC exercise that was being conducted off Hawaii. That same year it conducted a major naval exercise in the eastern Indian Ocean between Christmas Island and Indonesia. In 2015 the PLA Navy rather cheekily sent a flotilla through US territorial waters off Alaska while President Obama was visiting that state. The PLA publically and privately justified its actions in all these instances in terms that could have been used by a spokesman of the 7th Fleet. At present the PLA Navy can only make such deployments sporadically. But its capabilities will develop and as capabilities converge so may concepts, and as concepts converge so may interests.]
Over time a more symmetrical naval equation must develop in the SCS. When this occurs, it is likely that some implicit or de facto agreement over the SCS will be reached between the US and China. When this occurs– and I believe it is more a question of when and how, not whether – countries like Cambodia and the Philippines will find themselves far out on a limb. When big countries reach agreement they generally try to make small countries pay the price.
Lest you think I am indulging in paranoid fantasies, let me remind you that at the 1981 International Conference on what was then called Kampuchea, the US took China’s side against ASEAN on the central question of whether or not the status quo ante should be restored after the Vietnamese withdrew and thus whether the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge should automatically return to power. The then Assistant Secretary of State for our region, the late John Holdridge, even threatened my Foreign Minister with “blood on the floor” if Singapore did not relent in our insistence that the Cambodian people be allowed to exercise their right to internal self-determination through UN-supervised elections. When the US eventually relented it was probably because it dawned on the administration how the New York Times headline would read if it became generally known that the US was supporting a genocidal regime. Nor are such dark thoughts perculiar to Southeast Asia. Ever since the 1972 ‘Nixon Shock’ Japan has periodically harboured worries about being ‘passed’. Is that concern now passé? If I was Japanese I would not think so.
Nothing I have said is intended to imply that the US presence in Southeast Asia is unwelcome. But in Southeast Asia the American porridge is always going to be too hot or too cold. It is extremely difficult to get the temperature just right to suit the tastes of all countries in a politically diverse region. Some countries will always fear abandonment while others will always fear entanglement. This is the reality that inevitably confronts an off-shore balancer and its allies. It is one of the burdens of global power. But of late the US has itself unnecessarily added to its own burdens.
American intervention in Iraq, and later in Libya and Syria in support of the UK and France, left those countries irrevocably broken. But the US is now is doing its best to walk away. When the ‘Arab Spring’ broke out – a singularly inappropriate metaphor because after spring inevitably comes summer and Arab summers are notoriously hot -- within the space of a mere week the US shifted from treating Mubarak as a valued and steadfast thirty year ally to unceremoniously dumping him. In Southeast Asia, this evoked echoes of how the US had treated Suharto, another thirty year ally. The US drew a ‘red-line’ in Syria which quickly faded entirely away as the Obama administration desperately grabbed at the threadbare line thrown to it by Russia. And all this at a time when China was constantly reminding ASEAN in ways subtle and not so subtle that it was a geographical fact, whereas the American presence in Southeast Asia was only a geopolitical calculation.
In this respect, the metaphor of the ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ was also singularly inappropriate, connoting discontinuity. What ‘pivots’ or ‘rebalances’ one way could swing another. Instead the stress should have been on the essential continuity of US policy in East Asia over the last thirty years or more, which has the additional advantage of being true. The TPP helps mitigate the possibility of a sharp swing in US policy. But is not a substitute for political consistency. The American system impels each new administration to stress difference even when there is none. Do not assume everyone in Southeast Asia understands the eccentricities of the US system and can make appropriate judgements about political rhetoric. But I do not think that what Trump and Clinton have said about the TPP can be entirely dismissed as campaign rhetoric. They were responding to a political mood that any new President cannot ignore whatever her own inclinations.
Let me concede that ASEAN has not dealt with the complexities of the SCS particularly well. ASEAN’s basic and enduring purpose is to maintain a modicum of order and civility in relations among its members in a region where this is not to be taken for granted. On this score ASEAN has not done badly. But ASEAN is divided on the SCS and will remain divided. We occasionally are able to come up with useful statements on the SCS. Still, statements are only just that: statements that do not change realities on the ground.
ASEAN constantly stresses its ‘centrality’. But if ASEAN is ‘central’ it is not because of our strategic weight but because our lack of strategic weight enables major powers to find ASEAN-led forums such as the ARF and the EAS occasionally useful, while remaining confident that ASEAN cannot frustrate their most vital designs. And if we look like doing something even minimally effective on the SCS, China will not hesitate to divide ASEAN as it did in 2012 and again just a few weeks ago. I don’t think China was behaving unusually. It was behaving as all big countries do on issues which they consider their core interest.
If I am right about how China defines its primary interest in the SCS, then it connects directly with the most vital of all its interests. For a hundred years, the legitimacy of all Chinese governments has been measured by its ability to defend China’s borders and sovereignty. The artificial islands may be of limited military utility, but they serve a vital domestic purpose and additionally impress the natives – that’s us – with China’s inescapable contiguity. Of late China has even taken umbrage at referring to the disputed areas as being in dispute because they have been Chinese territory since “ancient times”, or so they claim.
What autonomy ASEAN currently enjoys on the SCS is due to the US presence which is an irreplaceable element of the regional balance. But ASEAN does not define balance as being directed against one major power or another as during the Cold War. The small countries of Southeast Asia conceive of ‘balance’ as an omnidirectional state of equilibrium that will allow us to maintain the best possible relationship with all the major powers and avoid being forced into invidious choices. Avoiding invidious choices does not mean avoiding taking positions, lying low, saying nothing meaningful and hoping for the best. To duck on such a central issue as the SCS is to surrender autonomy. What it does mean is leaving open the maximum range of options when positions are taken, or at least this is how Singapore sees it.
Unfortunately not all my ASEAN brethren regard balance in this manner. Balance in this sense requires psychological as well as material equilibrium; it is a frame of mind. The US is an irreplaceable component to the material balance. But while the US and its allies can build capacity in those ASEAN countries that are deficient, warships, fighter aircraft and submarines are necessary but insufficient conditions to maintain such a frame of mind. And as I have argued, some US actions have even undermined psychological equilibrium in Southeast Asia.
Internal developments in ASEAN members are crucial to maintaining psychological equilibrium. Here what happens on land is as important as what happens at sea. China’s growing economic ties with Southeast Asia and the many infrastructure projects planned or underway are binding southwest China and mainland Southeast Asia into one economic space. This is to be welcomed on economic grounds but inevitably changes calculations of interest. It was a strategic mistake for the US and Japan to have stayed out of the AIIB. Japan is investing in Southeast Asian infrastructure. But what Japan alone can do in mitigation is limited. If the US and Japan were in the AIIB, it would have had a greater effect. Fortunately it is not an irreversible mistake. ASEAN countries are not alone in being psychologically vulnerable. It was not too long ago that a former Australian Prime Minister concluded, for broadly similar economic reasons, that Australia’s alliance with the US had become a strategic liability.
If Singapore has been more resistant to this Chinese tactic it is not because we are less venal than others or because of our superior wisdom, but from harsh necessity. We are the only ethnic Chinese majority country in a region where the Chinese are typically a less than fully welcome minority. We organise ourselves on the basis of multiracial meritocracy where typically countries in our region organise themselves on the basis on the dominance of one ethnic group or another. China nevertheless constantly refers to Singapore as a ‘Chinese country’ who should therefore ‘understand’ China better and hints at undefined but vast rewards if we should ‘explain’ China to other ASEAN countries. We politely but firmly tell the Chinese that we are not a Chinese country. We understand all too well that when the Chinese seek our ‘understanding’ they mean ‘obey’ and by ‘explain’, they mean use whatever influence we may have in ASEAN on their behalf. If we were ever foolish enough to accept their characterization and do their bidding, the multiracial meritocratic compact on which independent Singapore rests would be at least severely strained if not broken.
Singapore’s success rests on this foundation of social cohesion. Once lost it will be very difficult if not well-nigh impossible to regain, particularly if the government is regarded as complicit. But it would be equally foolish to alienate China which even at a slower rate of growth is going to be a major factor in our economic future. Maintaining a good relationship with China, while retaining the autonomy to pursue our own interests as we define them is not a matter of choice; for us it is a matter of survival.
We have so far managed this delicate balancing act. But Singapore is only fifty years old and not all my compatriots understand this reality and are not immune to Chinese seductions. This understanding must be, has been and I have no doubt, will sooner or later again, have to be enforced by the exercise of the coercive powers that are the legitimate monopoly of the state. And exercised in a way that is entirely in accordance with our laws, but will probably be regarded by some of our partners, the US and Japan included, as arbitrary and in conflict with ‘values’ that they hold dear. We have also deployed such powers against American and European attempts to influence our internal dynamics and again I have no doubt we will have to do so again in the future. Therefore the less said about ‘values diplomacy’ under any guise the better. [END]