U.S.-China Detente Would Pose Its Own Dangers

Beijing’s neighbors are ready to take steps to protect themselves.

Taehwa Hong

This commentary was originally published in Foreign Policy

President Biden and President Xi meet to discuss U.S.-China relations.
Both strategic competition and a strategic detente between the U.S. and China need to be carefully managed, Taehwa Hong writes in Foreign Policy.

There’s been a lot of attention paid to the danger of intensifying U.S.-China competition, and to ways to reduce tensions. However, a poorly executed detente presents its own risks to international security, creating an unstable situation in East Asia that could spiral into its own disaster.

Right now, both domestic U.S. and international opposition to Chinese aggression seemingly preclude a detente, but the possibility is still there. If the escalating tension in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea lead to a crisis that falls short of a military conflict and is resolved without a clear and definitive settlement, the chances of a U.S.-China detente, mirroring the U.S.-Soviet detente after the Cuban missile crisis, will grow. The possibility of war can — rightly — scare both sides, but this may also not lead to a stable peace.

Already the economic costs of confrontation and technological decoupling are pushing business and political leaders to advocate a modus operandi of defusing the tension. Other areas of possible cooperation might drive a push for de-escalation. A majority of Americans and allied populations, especially in Europe, consider climate change a top national security threat — and there are regular calls for compromise with China to address this issue. America’s current mood of isolation and retrenchment adds to the possibility of detente.

It’s not difficult to imagine what this could look like on the U.S. side. Washington and Beijing could agree on an informal division of influence within the so-called first island chain along the eastern edge of Asia. The United States could reduce troops in the region or revise alliance treaties to limit the scope of security guarantees, and such decisions could coincide with the host country’s domestic political situation, as demonstrated by the threatened termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines in 2020. The join initiatives of Japan, India, Australia, and the United States — known together as the Quad — could be restricted to nonmilitary dimensions.

Whatever the specifics, the perception of the detente would be shaped by China’s own concessions, such as toning down its rhetoric against Taiwan or reducing its military presence in the South China Sea. But, realistically, none of Beijing’s offers will alter its position as the dominant regional power relative to its neighbors. Without a fundamental shift in either China’s aspirations or capability, a premature detente could well be perceived by allies as a quasi-abandonment of the region. And unlike the United States, there are commitments — like revanchism over Taiwan — that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) simply cannot surrender without risking domestic political crisis. Washington’s regional commitments, however long-standing, would be much easier to abandon politically.

Despite the common notion that East Asia is Washington’s priority theater, the fear of abandonment remains tangible. During the Trump administration’s negotiations with North Korea, South Korea and Japan were anxious that a grand bargain — where North Korea dismantled its intercontinental ballistic missiles targeting the U.S. mainland and some nuclear weapons in return for reduced U.S. presence in the peninsula — could entail their abandonment.

A perceived U.S. withdrawal could trigger a wave of ultranationalism, precipitating an arms race, potentially even a nuclear one. Given China’s and its neighbors’ incompatible ideologies, coupled with Beijing’s authoritarian vision for the regional order, East Asian countries are likely to balance against, rather than bandwagon with, China.

Calls for nuclear armament are already growing in South Korea, especially among conservatives. Japan’s postwar Peace Constitution will likely be untenable in the context of perceived U.S. withdrawal.

Analysts often point to the economic interdependence between China and its neighbors. However, growing anti-China sentiment across the region could align the foreign-policy elite and the population’s drive for large-scale armament, even at its economic costs. The trade conflict between South Korea and Japan in 2019, resulting from a wave of intense nationalism, demonstrates how such sentiments might overwhelm economic rationales, especially when combined with a sense of existential threat from China.

Granted, the original U.S.-China detente in the 1970s had exactly the opposite effect. It produced thaws across the Bamboo Curtain in East Asia. In 1972, the two Koreas produced the “July 4th North-South Joint Statement,” the first of its kind. China and Japan normalized diplomatic relations the same year. However, the situation is dramatically different today.

In 1972, South Korean President Park Chung-hee temporarily abandoned his anti-communist hard line for inter-Korean reconciliation, primarily because he feared a total U.S. withdrawal. He was concerned that not playing along with Washington’s peace initiatives could accelerate withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea. He also sought to use the nominal thaw to buy time to prepare South Korea, then an impoverished nation, against a potential North Korean invasion. Lastly, Park hoped to strengthen the legitimacy of his regime, a military dictatorship, by adopting his leftist political rivals’ dovish position on inter-Korean affairs.

From the onset of the 1950s, Japanese elites sought reconciliation with China. Domestic business interests, along with growing socialist voices, favored improved relations with China so much that by the 1970s, even the conservative Liberal Democratic Party campaigned on pledges for reconciliation. Most importantly, Beijing at the time had neither the intent nor the capacity to pursue unrivaled hegemony in the region, particularly in the presence of the Soviet Union — its biggest perceived threat. China was even willing to push aside territorial contentions and Japan’s wartime atrocities for diplomatic normalization. In fact, Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka concluded that normalizing relations with Beijing provided a “stronger security guarantee than having an Asian NATO.”

In 2022, however, the landscapes have changed radically. Seoul is ready to boost its already expanding military programs in the event of a U.S. withdrawal. The tensions in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea constantly remind the South Korean foreign-policy establishment of two cold truths: that they could get trapped into an unwanted conflict and that South Korea might not be a strategic priority in the broader competition between the great powers. Now one of the world’s largest economies, Seoul is likely to engage in independent military buildup.

Domestic South Korean politics is also moving in the opposite direction than in 1972. It is telling that the outgoing Moon Jae-in administration faces piercing criticisms for a supposedly supine stance toward Beijing. Some conservatives advocate requesting Washington redeploy tactical nuclear weapons — which were removed in 1991 as the Cold War drew to a close — to the peninsula to elicit Beijing’s cooperation in denuclearizing North Korea. Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s tenure has already created a rare consensus among conservatives and progressives that a strong national military should bolster the South Korean-U.S. alliance, rather than excessively relying on Washington. A further sign of U.S. retrenchment or abandonment is highly likely to kick-start discussions of weapons development, particularly after the May 2021 termination of the U.S.-South Korea Ballistic Missile Range Guidelines that prohibited Seoul’s acquisition of missiles over a range of greater than 800 kilometers (about 500 miles).

Japan has maintained surprisingly strong ties with China despite its role in the Quad and the U.S.-led alliance system. Economic interdependence is at the crux of the relations; belying calls for Western decoupling from China, Japanese companies such as Toyota are adding major investments there. Despite the hawkish factions within their cabinets and party, both former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his successor Yoshihide Suga, who has also since left office, pursued a warm policy toward China. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Abe had invited Xi Jinping for his first visit to Japan as the CCP’s general secretary. However in the face of increasingly aggressive China, Japan is intensifying cooperation with India and Vietnam, including a potential trilateral forum in the Indo-Pacific.

In August 2021, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party held a 2+2 meeting with Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, infuriating Beijing. Japan has been the most vocal Asian country in criticizing China’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Ultimately, a warm China policy is strictly conditioned upon the premise that the U.S.-Japan alliance remains intact, an indispensable precondition for the 1972 normalization. A U.S.-China detente in which Japan felt betrayed would reshape Tokyo’s calculations. Having already expanded its defense budget beyond the informal guideline of 1 percent of GDP, Japan is likely to embark on a more assertive, if not military, move at the sign of a dangerous U.S.-China compromise.

Unlike Europe, which has promoted arms control — at least locally — since the end of World War II, Asia is traditionally unfamiliar with collective arms control. In fact, China’s neighbors have records of mobilizing their economies for national security interests. The miracle of South Korea’s economic success stemmed from a focus on heavy industry, initially intended to foster the defense industry to boost its military against North Korea.

Hostile China-Russian relations, the pillar of the original detente, has been replaced with a close partnership bordering on an outright alliance. In 2022, China’s neighbors perceive substantial Chinese threats to their territorial integrity. Chinese advances in the Yellow Sea, along with its saber-rattling over the uninhabited islands known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, suggest the security fear is far from hypothetical. A report compiled by the Republic of Korea Army in March 2020 singled out the People’s Liberation Army Northern Command as the largest security threat to the peninsula. Then-Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso asserted last year that “Okinawa could be next” after China’s bid to take over Taiwan. A poorly managed U.S.-China detente in 2022 would likely generate intense security competition.

This is not to say that Washington and Beijing should push for a military clash. Rather, the United States should ensure that its allies’ interests and concerns are reflected in any agreements signed with China. For example, signing comprehensive trade agreements with China when steel and aluminum tariffs on U.S. allies are in place could send the wrong message. Ceasing joint military exercises without consultation with allies — as Trump did after his summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in 2018 — would amplify fears of Washington’s intent.

Accommodating Beijing’s technological influence in such areas as 5G mobile infrastructure, as advocated by some business interests both in the United States and across Asia, will in the long term render U.S. allies hostage to weaponized dependence. Washington has previously signed deals with adversaries that disregard its allies’ interests; it defied Israel and Gulf partners’ protests to sign the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, and it ignored Indian and European concerns when signing the Doha agreement with the Taliban in 2020. This should not be the case when dealing with China.

U.S. allies should enhance cooperation among themselves, including with partners that lack a formal security treaty with Washington, and built interoperable forces. In particular, South Korea and Japan should strengthen ties not only to anchor the United States’ presence in the region but also to devise a security structure that can cushion any adverse impact of a U.S.-China compromise that does not reflect their interests. Washington should proactively mediate between the two allies over the historical issues that have caused bitterness between Seoul and Tokyo, preventing them from pursuing urgent geopolitical cooperation.

Washington and its allies can redefine collective security commitment to include nonmilitary domains such as cyberattacks and economic coercion. Chinese aggressions in the so-called gray zone are designed to test the resolve of collective defense. In particular, trade coercion and supply chain disruptions, if are not explicitly covered in the security treaties, could weaken the basis of collective security in an era when economy and security are inexorably intertwined. China has repeatedly shown its willingness to use such tools. Responses to these threats do not have to be military, either — proportional, targeted measures would prevent unconventional conflicts from spiraling out of control, as would expressly including these in security treaties. As with traditional military threats, deterrence functions when there is a solid assumption of reciprocity.

China on its part should not pursue hegemony over Asia by weakening U.S. alliances. China’s Zhou Enlai, who spearheaded the Japan-China Joint Communique in 1972, accepted the U.S.-Japan alliance, including its coverage of Taiwan; he believed a U.S. presence was an impediment to the resurgence of Japan’s militarism. Beijing should realize that its neighbors will not accept its version of the Asian order, which will likely resemble a mix of traditional Asian suzerainty and the 19th-century Concert of Europe — a hierarchical structure that overshadows sovereign equality, and where nationalism and liberalism are squashed for the sake of stability.

About the author: Taehwa Hong is a junior at Stanford University (’23) majoring in International Relations. He is currently working as a research assistant for Dr. Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on China, military strategy and security at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center (APARC) and the Center for International Cooperation and Security (CISAC).

Taehwa Hong, an International Relations major (’23) at Stanford University.

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