Originally published in The Straits Times – 19 June 2015

By Kevin Rudd

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd is currently a senior fellow at the Belfer Centre of Harvard’s Kennedy School. He wrote a summary report on a longer forthcoming work on US-China relations in the 21st century. In this first excerpt from the summary report, he analyses the difference in strategic and economic thinking between the two big powers and points the way forward to a more stable, long-term relationship.

CHINESE political, economic and foreign policy influence in Asia will continue to grow significantly, while China will also become a more active participant in the reform of the global rules-based order.

A core geopolitical fact emerging is that we are now seeing the rise of what (analyst) Evan Feigenbaum has described as “two Asias”: an “economic Asia” that is increasingly dominated by China; and a “security Asia” that remains dominated by the United States.

China is now a bigger trading partner with every country in Asia than the United States. The US is either an ally or strategic partner of the bulk of maritime Asia. By contrast, China’s only strategic “ally” is North Korea, which has become a greater strategic liability than an asset.

If strategic tensions drove the US and China into adversarial postures, regional states would face increasingly irresistible pressure to make a zero-sum strategic choice between the two.

China continues to build on its economic strength in the wider region through its recent institutional innovation. While the Brics Bank, or the New Development Bank (NDB), has a global mandate, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has an exclusively regional focus. As for the Silk Road Fund, the bulk of its investment will focus on Southeast, South and Central Asia.

Concurrently, many regional states are strengthening their security ties with the US, compelled by their long-term strategic anxieties over an increasingly powerful China. Strategic polarisation across Asia is, therefore, likely to intensify in the future.

The report examines different approaches to regional architecture and mechanisms to deal with Asian security challenges.

The US and the West are, at best, peripherally aware of China’s preferred institutional arrangements for the region as reflected in (Chinese President) Xi Jinping’s “Asian Security Concept” ( Yatai anquanguan.)

Delivered at the May 2014 Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (Cica), Mr Xi outlined an integrated concept of “common security, comprehensive security, and cooperative security” for the entire region. Provocatively, however, he made plain that his “Asian Security Concept” did not include the US: “When it comes to Asian affairs, they should fundamentally be handled by the people of Asia; when it comes to the problems of Asia, these should be fundamentally managed by the people of Asia; when it comes to the security of Asia, it should be upheld by the people of Asia. The people of Asia are capable and wise enough to strengthen cooperation among themselves, in order to achieve the peace and stability of Asia.”

The broad contours of Chinese strategic thinking on the future of regional architecture are beginning to take shape: Asia’s security architecture should not include the US or its alliance structure, according to Mr Xi, whereas the regional economic architecture of the future is negotiable.

Mr Xi’s security architecture template appears to be Cica. A revitalised Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum, including the Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific rather than the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is his preferred economic structure.

The report argues that the time is ripe to consider alternative institutional approaches that integrate both China and the US into a common regional arrangement, and with a mandate to tackle both security and economic challenges.

If competing structures are established, these will exacerbate regional division. Furthermore, the report argues that any explicit attempt to exclude the US from the regional security architecture is more likely to strengthen existing US military alliances, rather than weaken them.

Rather than playing an institutional tug-of-war, it would be far more constructive for the US and China to join hands in building pan-regional institutional arrangements. This will not solve all regional security challenges. But it will help to manage, and reduce, them over time.

Confidence-building measures could cascade into a more transparent security culture and, in time, a more secure Asia. But this can happen only if both powers decide to invest common capital into a common regional institution. Otherwise, we really do find ourselves in the world of the “zero sum game”.

Beyond Asia, and in the reform of the global order more broadly, China has a longstanding commitment to greater “multipolarity” in the international order.

For this reason, it has long been a member of most multilateral institutions within the United Nations and the Bretton Woods systems. China has used multilateralism as a means to expand its diplomatic influence in the world, particularly through its membership of the UN Security Council, at a time when its national power was limited. This has now begun to change.

Mr Xi stated clearly in his November address to the party’s international policy work conference: China is now engaged in “a struggle for the international order”( guoji zhixu zhizheng). This is an unusually sharp statement from the Chinese leadership and suggests that the international community should prepare for a number of new Chinese reform proposals of the current multilateral system. This may manifest itself through the normal review processes of the UN and other multilateral agencies as their treaty or regulatory systems come up for periodic review.

China is now committed to becoming an active participant in the reform of the current global order. There is no evidence to suggest that China wishes to abandon the current order. What is clear, however, is that China does not see the current system as set in stone. What we will, therefore, see is an increasing tempo in China’s multilateral policy activism, and a growing range of Chinese institutional initiatives. This represents a new, forthright Chinese voice in the world, in radical contrast to its previous approach of “hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead”.

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