Only A Grand Compromise Between U.S. And China Can Reduce
East Asian Tensions
Posted 01/27/2014 EST, Updated 03/29/2014 EDT
The centennial year of the outbreak of World War I, 2014, is likely to witness more turbulent East
Asian politics than any other time in recent decades. The rising power, China, seems determined to
challenge the status quo on security matters in the absence of any serious international efforts
to find a formula for dealing with the problem through dialogue. After advancing it's territorial
claims against the Philippines and Japan successfully over the last two years, China has now
stepped up efforts to strengthen control over the South China Sea.
For example, the Chinese government declared that, effective January 1 of this year, foreign
fishing vessels should obtain approval from China's local government, Hainan, before fishing or
surveying in two thirds of the South China Sea claimed by China. The U.S. State Department
spokeswoman Jen Psaki commented on China's act as "a provocative and potentially dangerous
act." This happened less than two months after China's declaration of an Air Defense
Identification Zone and the ensuing flight of two U.S. B-52 bombers through the declared air
defense zone. Two U.S. allies, South Korea and Japan also challenged China's declaration of
ADIZ, ratcheting up international tension heightened a notch.
These worsening security relations in East Asia are particularly worrisome because no political
leaders in major states are ready to act decisively with a vision for making a lasting peace in
the region. Most of them are captivated by narrowly defined national interest of their own. If the
current trend continues, there will be high probability that unfolding of events will continue to
drift dangerously,and in the worst case, even end up in a catastrophic situation.
That will be detrimental for all states in East Asia, but particularly for China. Rising tension
will make China's neighbors nervous and cause them to depend more on the United States for their
own security. This, in turn, will lead to a more prominent presence in East Asia of the US -
precisely what China has sought to avoid with its actions.
Thus, China's efforts to enhance its influence as a rising power in an assertive way will actually
backfire and result in an unintended encirclement of China by her neighbors. The irony is that
this 'security dilemma' was exactly what happened in Europe when Kaiser Wilhelm II, confident of
rising power of Germany, began to practice a muscular diplomacy in 1890. The more prudent way
of expanding China's influence would be through buying the hearts of East Asian people and
deepening economic interdependence rather than through showing off its military power
In addition, pushing Japan too far in disputes over the East China Sea may backfire in the long
run. Japan's political leaders are pushing for a remilitarization program in recent years in fear
of perceived threat of rising China. If they feel more threatened by China and less assured of the
U.S. will to defend Japan, Japanese political leaders may try to be autonomous from the United
States and even consider a nuclear option as the last resort. This would be a dangerous
development toward a chaotic situation in which political leaders will find it very difficult
to control the unfolding of international events.
This is why the United States should do more than passively responding to the daily events in East
Asia. Most of all, it should try to find a new formula for peaceful coexistence with China. Even
though China may demand a more equal status in both economic and military fields through such
catchphrases as forming "a new type of major power relationship," the United States should not
reject outright the idea of discussing a new formula for peaceful coexistence with China.
Instead, the United States should try to strike a grand compromise. It may offer help for more
representation of China in international economic institutions, reflecting the rise of China's
economic power. China has been complaining that her voice was underrepresented despite the
rapid rise of its own economic capability. In return, China may make a promise to respect
existing norms and institutions for international economic cooperation instead of trying to
challenge them. After all, China has been benefitting and will continue to benefit from
actively participating in the existing international institutions even though it did not
participate in the process of establishing them.
In the security field, the United States should be more attentive to China's concerns. For example,
Taiwan has long been the most important concern for China. The United States may offer a
reduction of arms sales to Taiwan, considering the favorable cross-straits relations these days.
This need not necessarily jeopardize the U.S.-Taiwan relationship but, instead, send a very
positive signal to China contributing to mutual confidence-building. In return, China would
promise not to challenge the status quo on the issues of the East China Sea and South China Sea.
China may think it was Japan who challenged the status quo first through the Japanese
government's purchase of the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands. However, if China pushes
Japan too far on these territorial disputes, it will make U.S. intervention inevitable and
ignite another round of dangerous escalation of conflicts. China's efforts to strengthen its
control over South China Sea will also bring about a similar result since it touches the critical
issue of securing safe transit of trade goods for Japan and South Korea, allies of the United
This year, political leaders in East Asia had better keep the lessons of World War I in their minds.
It is high time for them, especially leaders of the United States and China, to exit from the
politics of complacency and act decisively to strike a grand compromise for a lasting peace.