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The Coming Age of Pax Pacifica: chances and challenges

9 mins read

History has witnessed many eras of peace underpinned by a single nation possessing dominant economic and military power. For example, Pax Romana of the Roman Empire, Pax Mongolica of the Mongol Empire, Pax Britannica of the British Empire and Pax Americana of the United States. However, the “End of History” in Western liberal democracy envisioned by political scientist Francis Fukuyama may not really be the end of history. In recent years, there has been an emerging consensus on the coming age of Pax Pacifica in recognition of the peaceful — but not too peaceful — development of China in terms of both wealth and power. Despite China’s growing clout in the region, it is crucial to recognize that the U.S. still has an indispensable leadership role to play in mediating disputes and maintaining peace in the Asia-Pacific. The US should seize such opportunities to reinforce its role in the region. In the meantime, a smart U.S. strategy cannot succeed without effectively managing potential fault lines of conflict concerning: 1) Taiwan, 2) the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, and 3) disputable islands claimed by multiple parties that involve China (e.g. Spratly Islands, Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands).

During a recent speech at the Asia Society in New York, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd called for a new international framework, or “Pax Pacifica.” Rudd has been a China expert since his undergraduate years at the Australian National University, where he majored in Chinese language and history. Acknowledging the crucial role that China plays in international trade and security, Rudd argued that forging the framework of Pax Pacifica would help Asia embrace the rise of China amid ongoing differences and rivalries between Beijing and Washington. Failure to do so, Rudd warned, would have “profound consequences for the world at large.”

Rudd’s call to action came at a time when China’s rise is making its neighbors — especially those that have territorial disputes with China or with whom China has historically unresolved grief — skeptical of the prospects of regional peace. Japan’s 2011 Defense White Paper expressed grave concern over, and dim predictions about, China’s military buildup. Since the end of last year, there has been a series of strategic moves aimed at China, including the basing of thousands of U.S. Marines in northern Australia and the stationing of Navy warships in Singapore. A talk between the Philippines and Washington is currently underway about expanding U.S. military presence in the island nation in preparation for potential Chinese provocative behaviors in the region.

Despite popular claim that the U.S.’s leadership role in the Asia-Pacific is waning, the call for Pax Pacifica presents many opportunities for the U.S. to reinforce its preeminence. It is increasingly clear that China’s policies are for Chinese interests, not a stable world order. The turning of Asia-Pacific governments to the U.S. for military assistance is enough to demonstrate the indispensable role of the U.S. in mediating disputes and maintaining peace in the region. Even the hostile government of North Korea — after a cold, hard calculation of history and the realities of geopolitics — would welcome U.S. presence to buffer the heavy influence that its neighbors already have over a small country sandwiched between China and Japan. The U.S. should thus spare no efforts to demonstrate its commitments to its allies and leadership in the region.

Even though U.S. Asia-Pacific policy may take a different trajectory if Obama fails to get re-elected, the current administration has crafted a promising regional agenda. In an address to the Australian Parliament in November last year, Obama declared the commitment that the Pentagon would “rebalance” the armed forces toward the Asia-Pacific region in the aftermath of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the winding down of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Obama also emphasized that the shrink in the military budget would not influence the reorientation of U.S. armed forces toward Asia.

On the other hand, challenges remain. In an effort not to make the “China Threat” a self-fulfilling prophecy, it is important to stay tuned to the voices from Beijing — especially its concerns and sensitivities. In fact, there is a pronounced commitment by Beijing to maintain a peaceful environment in East Asia. From at least the early 1990s, Chinese foreign policy conforms to the guideline spearheaded by the great Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping, which says: “keep a low profile and achieve something.” The reformulated version is now taking shape. During a speech at a highly influential, People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-affiliated think tank in Beijing, General Ma Xiaotian, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the PLA states that China should “uphold keeping a low profile and actively achieve something.” This revised recommendation is crucial given the growing PLA influence in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the consensus required between the two before any new guidelines can be announced. Beijing’s continued commitment to peaceful development is self-revealing.

To manage potential fault lines with China, there are three areas that the U.S. needs to handle with care. First, Taiwan will remain a priority in Sino-American relations. The Beijing government regards Taiwan as the last uncovered part of the Chinese nationalist body, and is almost willing to do anything to prevent Taiwanese independence. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan aroused much resentment in Beijing in the past and should be handled with caution in the future. Second, China’s historical unresolved grief dating back to Japanese occupation during WWII still factors heavily into China’s foreign policy: for China, Japanese militarization is much more haunting than that of any other countries. In light of this, a strengthened U.S.-Japan Security Alliance will not only consolidate a U.S. military foothold in East Asia, but also ease Chinese security anxiety about a resurgence of Japanese militarism. Third, disputable islands in East and South China Seas may develop into battlegrounds if mishandled. The U.S. should actively maintain a gesture that it is willing not to stand by any one party, but to help facilitate communication and mediation among involved parties.

To embrace the coming age of Pax Pacifica, the U.S. should actively seize the opportunities to reinforce its much-needed leadership in resolving conflicts and maintaining peace in the Asia-Pacific against the backdrop of withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East. However, challenges remain and may develop into conflicts if not handled appropriately. Taiwan, the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance and disputed islands in East and South China Seas are concerns that deserve attention and caution. Only with such understanding in words and deeds can the Asia-Pacific be truly pacific.

Shiran is a senior. You can reach her at sshen1@swarthmore.edu.

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