Security dilemma in the Southeast Asian region

Lucas is a second year International Relations student from Spain, who is currently in an exchange year at the University of Hong Kong. During the past months, he has developed a very strong interest in the East Asia region, namely its economic development and the role of China in the XXIst century international order. You might see him competing for the KCL tennis team, or debating about the European Union (one of his biggest passions) and anything related to East Asia.

In November 2011, President Barack Obama announced the USA’s “Pivot to Asia” policy. With this, the United States was to shift its focus from the Middle East, where its Iraqi and Afghani military campaigns had rendered little success, to Asia, namely East Asia. The official reasoning behind this policy was the increasing importance of this region, both in security and economic terms. Undoubtedly, the East Asian region is and will continue to be the cornerstone on which the future of international relations develops, but can we expect a peaceful US role in a region with a rising China?

‘Pivot to Asia’ policy and security issues:

In 2009, 2 years before unveiling the new policy approach, President Obama visited China and a joint statement was released in which both parties called for “regular exchanges between leaders”, and cooperation in issues ranging from economic partnerships, space exploration, and, most importantly, “military-to-military relations”. The Obama administration framed their Asia policy in terms of national interests, but, at first, there was hope that Sino-American relations could defy the conventional wisdom of tensions between the hegemony and the rising power. Relations between both countries have had a steady deterioration that, whilst still not being overtly confrontational, does point towards uncooperative and competitive relations.

Since the policy was unveiled, the United States has repeatedly toured the region and its allies in it to:

1) Deepen economic ties

2) Give military and defence assurances

3) Increase the securitising role of the US in the region

Despite continuously framing their actions as peaceful, both superpowers have shown increasing assertiveness in the region during the past decade. In the case of China, it claims around 90% of the South China Sea or everything within the borders of what is known as China’s “nine-dash line”. In this sense, China has been building ports, military bases, and other infrastructures within these maritime borders, especially in the Paracel and Spratly islands, whose territorial ownership is contested by various regional actors. Despite the US’ assurances of territorial integrity in the region, it has decided to stay out of these minor territorial conflicts. Nevertheless, if there is one territorial issue that may definitively spark the flame between both superpowers is Taiwan. 

The US has always regarded Taiwan as an ally and has vowed for its territorial integrity, especially recently, in light of the PRC’s increased discourse on reunification. The US has remained vague on what it means by defending Taiwan’s territorial integrity, but the mere possibility of direct conflict between China and the US over Taiwan’s territorial status speaks to the tension between both countries and the fragile security situation in the region.

During this new focus on Asia, the United States has taken steps to ensure the securitisation of the area by undergoing military drills, doubling down on its commitment to the integrity of its regional allies, or by sending military equipment and personnel. In this sense, the US has bolstered and reaffirmed military alliances with countries like the Philippines, Japan, and Australia, including sending US Marines to the latter. But why is this the case? Many international relations theories seek to explain state interactions and competition, but for a situation like this, power transition theory and Thucydides’ Trap probably give the clearest, and sadly, the direst, picture.

Security dilemma and Thucydides’ Trap:

Despite cooperative discourses from both superpowers, their relationship is characterised by deep mistrust and competition. The most recent example was in a 2021 bilateral summit in Alaska, where US sanctions on China over its crackdown in Hong Kong rendered this meeting tense and uncooperative from the start, with a completely different atmosphere thanObama’s visit to China in 2009. This deep mistrust makes their military objectives in the East Asian region a threat to one another, which can be analysed through the power transition theory, based on Thucydides’ Trap.

According to Graham Allison, confrontation and war are likely when a rising power (China) challenges the hegemony of the ruling power (United States). Hence, the security dilemma in East Asia seems to have no short-term solution: because of their mistrust, they will both increase their military presence in the region, which will threaten one another and bring us closer to a hot conflict. China’s increased emphasis on reunification, its territorial claims, and its growing military spending, together with the United States’ focus on East Asia and its military assurances and agreements with its regional allies point toward a zero-sum situation in the region. 

It is undoubtful that conflict will benefit neither of the two countries, but the question is not if there will be a winner of a hypothetical war, but rather if war is evitable altogether. The rise of China, both economically and militarily, is unstoppable, so the United States will be threatened by it, even if China reassures that its rise is peaceful. To avoid war, structures of trust must be created to assure one another that their intentions are not aggressive. If some kind of mutualtrust is not developed, a hot conflict between both superpowers might be inevitable.

Image Credit: https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/united-states/article/2149366/south-china-sea-tensions-does-us-have-endgame

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