Mon, 08 Aug 1994

Asia needs China's transparency

By Rizal Sukma

JAKARTA (JP): During the recent ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, China once again reiterated its commitment to stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

China's Foreign Minister Qian Qichen stated during the historic ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting that, "China is not involved in aggression and expansion, or in seeking hegemony." He also said that China was not interested in looking for a sphere of influence.

The same commitments have been repeated by Chinese leaders over the years, starting long before China was granted the status of "consultative partner" of ASEAN. Nonetheless, China still feels that it is necessary to emphasize the point whenever the opportunity arises.

The reiteration implies that China is fully aware that regional countries are still suspicious of its intent. The question is: Why does the suspicion persist? How can it be overcome?

The question of the "China threat" has always been a major concern to China's neighbors. It is related to the historical as well as strategic aspects of Chinese engagement in the Asia- Pacific region since 1949. During the 1960s, for example, China was an active supporter of almost all internal communist insurgences in Southeast Asian countries.

During the height of its rivalry with the former Soviet Union in the 1970s, China's military attack and later coercive diplomacy against Vietnam symbolized the country's inclination to use force to achieve its security interests.

More recently, China's strategic claim in the South China Sea has also disturbed regional countries. All of these activities have resulted in a deep suspicion of China's intentions toward Southeast Asia which persists even until now.

In the post-Cold War era, the misgivings over China's intentions in the region have become more complicated due to the lack of transparency in China's defense policy. No matter how untenable the theory of a regional "power vacuum" is, this theory remains attractive to regional policy makers, defense planners, and analysts.

In this regard, China's military build-up is often referred to as an obvious evidence of China's intention to fill the "vacuum". Consequently, the military aspects of the so-called "China threat" have increasingly assumed a greater significance in some ASEAN countries' perception and policies.

To overcome security challenges in the region, which are in part characterized by the unpredictability of China's behavior, it has been proposed that all countries should work toward a greater military transparency among the ARF participants.

The proposal constitutes an important element of the ongoing process of Confidence Building Measures (CBM) in the region.

However, it seems that China has some reservations about the idea, and its attitude on this matter remains an obstacle to a speedy CBM process.

Why does China have some reservations toward the idea of a greater military transparency in the region?

The Chinese attitude can be understood by putting it within the larger picture of China's policy towards regional multilateral security arrangements in the Asia-Pacific. In China's view, a multilateral approach towards security, if not managed carefully, could have some negative impacts on the independence of its defense strategy and policies.

Even though "complex security interdependence" has become a reality of the post-Cold War international politics, "independence" remains the "code word" of China's security policy.

Nonetheless, China is fully aware that the trend towards multilateral security arrangements cannot be resisted. Therefore, while still preferring bilateral arrangements, China has stated that it would not refuse to participate in multilateral security forums.

This implies that China has opted for some kind of selective engagement. For example, in some cases, such as in the recent ARF meeting, China has been an active participant. But, in some other cases, such as in the South China Sea disputes, China has maintained that it prefers a solution through bilateral negotiations rather than multilateral talks.

In fact, one of the objectives of the multilateral approach towards security in the region is to defuse tensions in the South China Sea, a matter which is multilateral in nature.

As a result of its reservations, it is likely that China might discourage any attempt at establishing region-wide security arrangements.

It is very likely that the Chinese reservations are also due to the perceived threat to China's national security that might come from Japan and the United States. In China's strategic assessment, only Japan and the U.S. are capable of posing a military threat to its national integrity and security.

Perhaps, one still remembers the importance Chinese leaders have put on the perceived U.S. attempts to change China through a "peaceful evolution".

If China approaches the question of a multilateral security arrangement with caution, it can be expected that China might also have some apprehension about the idea of greater military transparency in the region.

For example, China is not very enthusiastic with regard to the exchange of defense information through the publication of a "defense white paper", even though it understands that such activities would help reduce mutual suspicion between China and Southeast Asian countries.

For China, revealing its military strength means exposing its weakness vis a vis the U.S. and Japan. Moreover, "secrecy" is still an important aspect of China's defense strategy, as it has been since the era of Sun-tzu.

If China remains committed to the stability and security in the region, it should gradually change its attitude. Without its support of the idea of greater military transparency, it would be difficult for China to convince countries in Southeast Asia that it has no military ambition in the region.

Similarly, ASEAN should also appreciate China's cautious policy in the matter. In this regard, joint efforts to formulate an "acceptable degree of transparency" can be a starting point for both sides.

Without a common perception between ASEAN and China on this issue, the task of establishing a lasting peace in Southeast Asia will be difficult indeed.

The writer is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta, and a Ph.D. candidate at The London School of Economics and Political Science, the United Kingdom.