In a recent piece Xiaoming Huang noted correctly that China is moving rapidly to internationalise its economy and that the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is just the latest piece of the puzzle. He also noted that New Zealand has consistently pursued its regional economic interests through engagement with China. Correct again, certainly so for the last decade or more.
But there is more to China’s activities than just the internationalising of its economy. China is engaged in a redefinition of the relationship between economy and security in a way the current order has only paid lip service to. We have become used to the standard tropes that, for example, the regional US military presence has ensured the trade routes stay open, or that the regional security environment is enhanced by having separate institutions for political, security and economic activity (respectively the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation process). Yet China is arguing, in effect, that separating security and economics like this makes little sense.
China envisages a regional order of ‘Asia for Asians’ (whatever that means), where there are shared interests (common security). It sees economic power as security and security as economic strength (comprehensive security). And it believes we work collectively to achieve desired outcomes (cooperative security). All this within a context of sustainable processes. This approach is a direct challenge to the hub and spokes alliance system (outmoded Cold War thinking, according to Chinese interlocutors, entailing neither common, comprehensive nor cooperative security). It will require many states, including the US’s close Asian security allies, to consider to what extent the different approaches can be accommodated.
The building blocks for China’s approach were seen most recently at the first annual non-governmental CICA Forum, held in Beijing in late May. Some 350 participants from Israel, Turkey and Iran in the west, through the Gulf region, Central and South Asian states to a number of East Asian states attended. Only two western states were represented: New Zealand and Australia, by an academic and a journalist respectively. No western embassies attended the conference as observers, although some 30 Beijing based diplomatic missions did attend.
From that conference and from other analyses we can see an overarching system appearing. The so-called One Belt, One Road economic initiatives, the AIIB, the new security concept and nascent moves to link the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Russian-backed Eurasian Economic Union to the BRICS grouping. This potentially could see the emergence of an integrated region running from East Asia through Central and South Asia to West Asia and Europe. One recent discussion of the range of China’s activities notes that these ambitions are not ‘necessarily menacing or pernicious. But it does make them China-centric’. We should not fear China, but we should watch the country’s activities closely.
The core of this system will be the economic relationships between the states in this new region and the transport and communication infrastructures needed to support them. Security will be achieved because all will be working within a ‘common, comprehensive and cooperative’ framework. The system will have China at its centre, but it is an open question as to what that might mean for New Zealand and for other states committed to current processes.
Huang noted that there is a distinct possibility that the regional institutions that New Zealand has grown used to and is comfortable with may become irrelevant to China over time. He is right. China’s new preferred framework will stand alongside the current Asia-Pacific regional system, but given the overlapping membership it is possible that the Asia-Pacific will be subsumed into pan-Asian integration, with redundant activities and processes withering away or being completely transformed.
If this analysis is accurate, it raises two questions. The first question is normative and urgent: ‘what will the rules and norms of this new system be?’. The second question that flows from this is ‘which order should New Zealand prefer and promote?’. There are obvious logical possibilities: New Zealand could work to maintain the status quo; it could attempt to keep a foot in all camps; or it could embrace the new economic processes and the new security concept. Such choices are probably mutually exclusive positions and so the particular answers are important.
It is too soon to argue for any single position. But Wellington needs to be aware that depending on how East Asia reacts to China’s initiatives and activities in the South and East China seas, the security component of the status quo position will either fade or increase in relevance. The worst case scenario for Wellington would be if the new system became a competitor to the current one and New Zealand is forced to takes sides. For the moment the best course for New Zealand is to keep a close watch on the developing integrated region to determine its opportunities and potential costs, promote cooperation between all players and adherence to rules and norms acceptable to New Zealand, and to develop links with potential new players in the region.
Jim Rolfe is the Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and attended the 2015 CICA non-governmental forum. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo credit: CICA 2014 website