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China and Regional Security Architecture

A debate is now in progress among major Asia-Pacific nations on what should be the ultimate regional security architecture; this is happening at a time when fast-growing trade linkages and deepening cooperation through various integration mechanisms have already been transforming the region’s economic and political landscape. The debate itself certainly looks like a response to the rising impact on the region from a combination of traditional and non-traditional security threats; its objective is also becoming clear – progressing towards evolving a new security mechanism for the whole region, supplanting the existing various sub-regional groupings. In this process, the centrality, which the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a fast rising regional and global player, would occupy, may not be difficult to imagine. Beijing’s emerging views of a regional architecture, as expected, are closely linked to its own security perceptions and it cannot be denied that the same is the case with other key Asia-Pacific powers, like Japan, ASEAN, Australia, the US and India. As views vary, intra-regional differences on the subject being noticed appear normal; important, however, will be the final picture likely to emerge. In the ensuing paragraphs, an attempt has been made to trace various positions and analyse their likely implications for the evolution of a regional security mechanism, acceptable to all concerned nations.


Beijing’s stated vision is to establish ‘harmony’ in Asia-Pacific region; to achieve this, it has proposed a regional security cooperation concept featuring ‘equality, mutual benefit, openness and practicality’ and according ‘due role’ to ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Security Policy Conferences. In its view, in parallel to the pursuit of such cooperation, the existing regional and sub-regional cooperation mechanisms needs to be developed . Seeking to explain its ‘harmony’ goal above in strategic terms, the PRC thinks that ‘ peace is a product of parity, balance of power and offensive and defensive strengths’ and that no action should be taken sacrificing security interest of one country while achieving security in other nations. In this context, it believes that there should be no expansion of military alliances and deployment of missile defence system in the region; ‘missile defence partnership in some areas would be detrimental to strategic balance, confidence building and regional stability’ . China also stresses the connectivity between regional security and its ‘new thinking’ on security, based on ‘mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination’ . It believes in the ‘non-exclusive’ nature of regional cooperation and in drawing on the development practices of other regions


Japan’s official position is to accept the need for a ‘multilateral collective defence security mechanism’ in the Asia-Pacific region, similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Europe. Tokyo, at the same time, admits problems in this regard due to the existing ‘diversity in the region’s political and economic systems, cultures and ethnicities’. Under the circumstances, Japan seems to prefer a short-term approach aimed at ‘strengthening the existing multi-layer frameworks for bilateral and multilateral dialogue, while securing the presence and engagement of the US in the region’. It gives emphasis on the ‘synergy between Japan-US Security alliance and Tokyo’s Asian diplomacy’. Japan also feels that the ‘balance of power’ factor could be significant in the changing regional security environment, but reaching ‘mutual understanding’ among countries concerned is essential in this regard. Tokyo does not treat China as a threat to Japan, but wants Beijing to enhance the transparency of its military capabilities and their purpose . Some scholars in Japan have been more specific than the government on regional security mechanism. They have stressed the need for an “East Asia Security Forum” consisting of core states (ASEAN plus 6 including India, along with the US). The Forum, in their view, should reflect the principle of ‘inclusive multilateralism’ and ‘cooperative security’. On China, they recommend a ‘cautious’ Japanese engagement with that country, ‘predicated on traditional balance of power approach’ and for this purpose, foresee a ‘consolidation of strategic links between the four largest democratic states – Japan, India, Australia and the US.


The ASEAN views itself as the ‘centre’ of the regional security architecture . It visualizes the roles of a ‘facilitator’ and ‘honest broker’ to itself for the architecture, citing the reason that ASEAN nations enjoy a ‘pivotal geographic position’, providing a ‘neutral ground where powers with intersecting interests meet’. It hopes that the architecture could be shaped as the existing various structures like the East Asia Summits, Shangrila Dialogue and ASEAN Defence Ministers meetings, continue to evolve. The ASEAN identifies “three principles” to guide the development of an effective architecture- regional security is collective responsibility of all countries that have a stake in the region’s security, the architecture should be ‘open and inclusive’ and regional cooperation should be based on mutual respect and be in accordance with international law .


Australia stands for creation of an ‘Asia-Pacific Community’ by 2020, a body similar to the European Union, to span the entire region including itself, the US, Japan, China, India, Indonesia and other regional powers; it visualizes a charter for such Community -engaging in a ‘ a full spectrum of dialogue, cooperation and action in economic and political matters and future challenges relating to security’. Canberra’s concept has two premises- the global economic and strategic weight is shifting to Asia and the existing fora like ASEAN were not designed to promote cooperation across the entire region, due to the ‘greater diversity’ in the region’s political systems and economic structures . It finds a remedy to the situation in the proposed Community which could ‘enhance the region’s “fragmented” security and political cooperation as well as help resolve a number of regional conflicts, including on Taiwan, Kashmir and North Korea. China promptly welcomed the proposal by saying that the latter is in line with its hope for joint efforts in the region to ‘enhance exchanges and mutual political trust as well as deepen mutually beneficial cooperation, for achieving common development’ .

The US

The US acknowledges the ‘provisional’ nature of efforts to find a new Asia-Pacific security architecture and welcomes the ASEAN leadership in this search. It assures continued commitment to the region as a ‘resident’ power as its ‘sovereign’ territory stretches from the Aleutian Islands to Guam in the Western Pacific. While discussions on a new security architecture progress further, Washington in the meantime, would like to institutionalise the various existing forums to deal with the ‘region- specific’ problems and depend on its ‘time-tested’ architecture involving ‘alliances’ (with Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Thailand) and “partner-nation capacity building” (with India and Vietnam), the latter being described as a ‘new thinking in US overall defence strategy’. As per the declared US benchmarks for building new security architecture, that process should not be a ‘zero sum game’ and exclusion of any single country would mean ignoring the reality of Asia’s security today. Besides, ‘the entire region should be treated as a single entity and that there should be no separate East Asian order’.


In New Delhi’s formulations, Asian security cannot be looked in isolation from the region’s broader political and economic aspects. To accommodate Asia’s ‘diversity’, a ‘pluralistic security order’ based on a ‘cooperative’ approach is a must. Under such ‘polycentric’ security, each participant will have ‘equal stake and responsibility’. India believes that the order must be ‘open and inclusive’ and take into account the conditions prevailing in Asia. There should be no transplant of ideas from other parts of the world and any sub-regional security arrangements that are narrow and ultimately ineffective, should not be created. The building blocks for the new framework could be dialogue forums like ARF, Comprehensive International Cooperative Association (CICA) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Positional analysis

A comparative analysis of the positions of major Asia-Pacific players on the regional security architecture reveals divisions among them on the following issues:

Participation of the US:

The term ‘open and inclusive’ is missing in Chinese formulations. By implication, it would mean Chinese wariness to the US participation in the architecture; this is despite Beijing’s support, albeit at its own terms, to the Australian proposal, which includes the US. On the other hand, a near-unanimity prevails among other nations on the US role. The US itself is against ‘any zero sum game’ and exclusion of any country in the region. It may not be happy with its existing exclusion from regional bodies like the East Asia Summit, Shanghai Cooperation Organization and India-China-Russia trilateral dialogue. Japan, on its part, is firm in backing the US ‘presence and engagement’ in the region. ASEAN, by insisting on ‘collective responsibility of all states that have a stake in the region’s security’, has indicated its approval to the US involvement. India’s formula of an ‘open and inclusive’ architecture, also reflects a stand welcoming the US.

US alliances in Asia

The US and Japan on one side and China on the other, are clearly at odds at each other on the issue of American alliances in Asia. Washington’s emphasis on its ‘tested alliances’ in the region and Japan’s vision of ‘synergy between US-Japan alliance and Tokyo’s Asian diplomacy’ stand in contrast to Beijing’s perception that the US-led alliance in Asia is detrimental to ‘strategic balance’ in the region.

Who should lead the architecture?

On this issue, India and Japan seem to be on the same side; India’s ‘polycentric’ approach matches with Japan’s line to set up a ‘multilateral collective security mechanism’. In comparison, ASEAN tends to stress its own ‘centrality’ in the architecture; Chinese formulations are silent on the subject; however, their mention of ‘parity’, ‘equality’ and ‘balance of power’ and prescription that the security of one nation should not be sacrificed while ensuring the security of others, reveal Beijing’s mind on the security order- the PRC should play a central role. Beijing and Tokyo desire a ‘balance of power’, but their interpretations are different. The PRC’s intention to play a ‘pre-eminent’ role is already visible; its declaration of support to the leadership of the ASEAN plus three (including the PRC) in matters of ASEAN Regional community, but with Beijing giving ‘long term and strategic guidance’, testifies the same.

Learning from other models

Sino-Indian divergence is apparent on this subject. In matters of regional cooperation, China is in favour of learning from outside powers; India’s stand on the other hand is to build an architecture taking into account the conditions in Asia, without any transplant of ideas from other parts of the world.

Sub-regional security arrangements

India is against creation of any ‘ineffective sub-regional security arrangements’. This may raise a question on New Delhi’s attitude towards the ASEAN’s goal of forming a Regional Community by 2015, which has a security component. Also, India, China, Japan and the US approve in varying degrees the development of the existing sub-regional organizations, till a regional architecture emerges; there seems to be a subtle difference in Australia’s attitude on this account. Canberra considers such organisations including the ARF as incapable of fully addressing the problems of the entire region and on that basis, pitches for a regional mechanism.

Concerns-Vision connectivity

Differences in opinions are bound to surface in a debate. Important however would be to correlate the security concerns of each country with their respective positions on regional security architecture. Taking the case of Japan first, its perception of US alliance as key to face threats from China (mainly military modernization, resource development in East China sea), from Russia (unsettled territorial issue) and from North Korea (nuclear weapon programme) provides the underpinning for its vision of a regional order with US involvement.

ASEAN too, sees in US a security guarantor against impact from China-related potential conflicts (South China sea territorial disputes) and a balancing factor to China’s rise. This, along with threats from extremism and the contradiction between Islam and modernization in Southeast Asia, is influencing the ASEAN view of a regional security order. In regional forums where the US is not represented, ASEAN has been careful by opposing Chinese proposals likely to harm US interests. For e.g, it did not accept Beijing’s offer to join the Southeast Asia Nuclear Free Zone, which excludes the US.

For Australia, the priority for the new government led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is to act as a balancer of relations with China and the West and accordingly, his “Asia-Pacific Community” concept is being seen as an effort to create an institution providing for checks and balances among major powers. While alliance with the US continues to be important for it, Canberra is increasingly eyeing the economic benefits coming out of cementing relations with Beijing. China has become important for Australia for mining and agriculture exports and it has emerged as Australia’s second largest trading partner. Japan and ASEAN, on their parts, are cool to Rudd’s idea. Prime Minister Fukuda took no notice of the idea during Rudd’s visit to his country, instead he emphasized on the roles of Japan and ASEAN in Asia-Pacific. ASEAN is of the view that Rudd has deviated from the principles of his predecessor over regional integration. The re-assurance later of Prime Minister Rudd that ASEAN would continue to be the ‘core’ of existing regional architecture has not been enough to clear the air.

The US perceptions of a global and regional security order are also linked with its views on the emerging world and Asia-Pacific security scenarios. In this regard, the challenges being perceived by Washington concern Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia globally and China, Myanmar and North Korea regionally. The 2008 ‘US National Defense Strategy’ identifies terrorism (Iraq and Afghanistan) as the main global threat and as a shift from strategy adopted so far to deal with that, focus has been given to the use of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power. China and Russia have been listed as powers which have ‘potentials’ to challenge the US-led international order. The US will strive to establish partnership with the two. But Washington will ‘hedge against Beijing’s growing military modernization and impact of its strategic choices on international security’. US interaction with China will be for long term and multidimensional. . In Asia-Pacific, the US stated goal is to form “ a new Asia-Pacific Democratic Partnership”.

India’s profile in the Asia-Pacific region is increasing as a result of its Look East Policy the scope of which now stands extended to wider East Asia and Pacific basin. New Delhi feels that this, coupled with growing inter-dependence between the nations, have widened India’s responsibility in the region. In its view, the nature and scope of trans-border threats are rising and issues relating to climatic change and food and energy security are also becoming important. To meet the main challenges of border, maritime security and energy security, India is building its own leverages in the region; it is taking active steps like holding talks on border with China, conducting active maritime diplomacy and carrying out energy cooperation. The fact that India has become a factor in the Asia-Pacific balance of power cannot be disputed; however, a rivalry between New Delhi and Beijing seems implicit in this process. Herein lies the real meaning of New Delhi’s ‘polycentric’ approach to regional security architecture.

China’s role will be the key to setting up of a regional architecture. The current picture points to a situation of ‘Beijing versus the rest’. It is because of the significant differences between its stand and that of other nations. China’s regional security concerns, as can be seen from various official documents and pronouncements, relate to ‘still not properly solved territorial and maritime disputes, Taiwan issue, the ‘ three evils’ of terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious extremism and threats to sea lanes of communication. Beijing also sees challenges in the US alliances and deployment of missile systems in the region, weaponisation of outer space and nuclear proliferation. It looks at with strong suspicions the US role in the region, particularly its ties with Japan and India as reflecting attempts to ‘contain’ China. The quadrilateral concept of ‘alliance of democracies’ (Japan, Australia, US and India) and the joint ‘Malabar’ military exercises by these nations have been the principal Chinese targets. Beijing also thinks that the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement is against the interests of the international non-proliferation regime and that India’s nuclear programme is a security threat for China.

Signs of China’s hesitation to give a leading role to India in regional integration are not difficult to see. For e.g, India’s regional cooperation policy is being criticised by China for its alleged aim to control the Malacca straits. On formation of the proposed ASEAN Regional Community also, Beijing visualises no role for India ; it instead wants to play a ‘guiding’ role to ASEAN plus 3 in this regard. Regarding East Asia summits, the PRC is only willing to accept India (also Australia and New Zealand) as ‘outsider’ member. The Chinese position being seen on India runs counter to what President Hu Jintao said in India (November 2006) – “ Both China and India positively view each others’ participation in Asian inter- regional, regional and sub-regional cooperation process”.It is not surprising that concerns of Beijing as above, are finding an echo in the Chinese vision for a regional architecture.


The PRC appears to believe that its concerns can effectively be dealt with only by a security order led by it; this is despite its ‘rhetoric’ on ‘equality and parity’ in the order. Beijing, in this regard, sees the US as principal challenger and this imposes on China the necessity to have an Asia-Pacific strategy aimed at limiting the US power and influence in the region and thereby rising as a dominant regional power. Japan and nations in Southeast Asia (especially Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, which have increased their military ties with the US) are, on the other hand, looking at the US for balancing China’s rise and stabilizing regional security. India, on its part, is giving equal importance to confidence building with China and strengthening partnership with the US, besides getting closer to other regional powers with clout, like Japan, ASEAN etc. Especially, it does not want to be seen as belonging to any anti-China grouping; but it is clear that Beijing suspects New Delhi’s pro-US tilt.What is being witnessed in the ultimate sense is a Sino-US competition, complicating the regional geo-politics. Suffice to conclude that all the major powers involved, the US, China, Japan and India face a heavy responsibility in creating the much-needed regional security architecture, acceptable to all sides.

( Based on paper presented by Mr D.S.Rajan, at International Seminar on “ India and Asia-Pacific- Convergence and Divergence”, held at Tirupati, 13-15 October 2008, under the auspices of Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, India The writer is Director of Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.Email:

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