China challenges the regional security order

Reports have emerged that China successfully tested an anti-satellite missile last week, after two previous failures (BBC; CNN). The implications of this test are obvious but not necessarily ominous.

The question is, in light of Japan’s recent overtures to improve cooperation with China and with a visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao scheduled for this spring, what will be Japan’s response to this test, given its implications for the efficacy of the US-Japan alliance in securing the region and responding to crises (especially in the Taiwan Straits)? The Abe Cabinet has provided an initial response in relatively measured tones, reiterating Japanese concerns about a lack of transparency in China’s military modernization program. If criticism does not go much further than this, chances are this will not be an important turning point in the Sino-Japanese rapprochement — but until the full international response unfolds it is too early to say.

This is also interesting in light of China’s successful overtures to ASEAN in the Philippines, with its proposal for a China-ASEAN free trade area, which prompted Gloria Arroyo, president of the Philippines, to say, “We are very happy to have China as our big brother in this region.” As Sheng Lijun points out in this piece posted at YaleGlobal Online, ASEAN’s member states are both drawn to China and concerned about its power, leaving room for the US to counter Chinese influence:

While there is less public talk of a “China threat,” Washington can take some comfort from the fact that distrust of China remains deep-rooted in the region and may grow if a rising China enters too deep. ASEAN countries have not joined the China bandwagon but “hedge,” engaging China while developing robust ties with the US and other extra-regional powers to balance China. Asian countries generally do not have much trust for one another and the US is perceived as the least distrusted of all major powers. Asian nations need the US as a balancer and double insurance when they develop their relations with China. ASEAN is aware that without a strong relationship with the US, China may take ASEAN for granted.

A vigorous but balanced relationship with the US is seen as not only security insurance but also an incentive for China to offer more economic sweeteners. Barring a sudden and major change in the international strategic landscape and a disaster in US Southeast Asia policy that would unexpectedly boost China’s influence by default, the more China pushes in deepening its relations with ASEAN, the more ASEAN may feel that it needs a strong relationship with the US and other extra-regional power to keep the balance.

How will ASEAN react to this display of China’s dark side, so shortly after it was hailed for its positive role in the region? Will it contribute to undermining the perceived reliability of the US as regional security guarantor, and lead Southeast Asian nations to seek the best possible arrangements with Beijing? Or will it serve to highlight the importance of the US as a check to China’s ambitions?

Thomas Barnett offers a perspective on China’s test of an ASAT missile that is somewhat in tune with my own thinking. The US-China relationship and the relationships between China and its neighbors are far too complex to reduce to a cold war-style antagonism, which is what much of the preliminary media coverage of this test tries to do.

Which goes to show that while this test is an important reminder that China’s rise has a dark side, it’s only that: a reminder. It’s no surprise that China would develop ASAT technology and other weapons that could neutralize American advantages in any potential conflict, but that does not mean that China desires war or that war between the US and China is inevitable.

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