The shadow of China is lengthening over East Asia – and a range of dynamics are making this possible.

With the rules-based international order bending toward breakage at a time when Sino-US rivalry scaling new heights, nations in East Asia are increasingly finding it difficult to maintain their strategic autonomy –  but also find themselves unable to create effective conflict-management mechanisms or alliances.

Because economic colossus China represents a more multi-pronged threat to the West than the binary ideological/military power that was the USSR, continued US dominance is no longer a certainty. The new paradigm of a rising continental power, China, facing a declining trans-continental power, the US, is pressuring countries to take sides, even though those countries are now economically intertwined with both players rather than just one, as was formerly the case.

Adding further risk, no new global system has yet appeared to replace the Western-led, rules-based global order. Adding a further level of complication is that this is happening at a time when permeable borders and economic interdependence make regional issues global and vice versa, speakers at the 8th Seoul Defense Forum said Thursday.

“Many factors are in the process of evolving,” said Chen Dongxiao, president of the Shanghai  Institute for International Studies. “The international order is declining, it’s done. The US is moving from rules-making to rules-dismantling. The old order is gone; a new one has not yet emerged.”

Imploding system

With the Donald Trump government in the United States trampling over multilateral treaties signed by predecessor administrations, the global order is in flux, other speakers at the forum organized by South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense agreed.

As Washington increasingly acts unilaterally, China is attempting to fill that vacuum, notably by wielding a huge economic war chest that seeks to build a global network of infrastructure.  “The US has been the champion of the rules-based international order,” Hideshi Tokuchi, visiting professor at Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said – but “…China is now proceeding under the banner of a shared future for mankind.”

Although Beijing  entered such global bodies as the WTO, it resisted some of the rules demanded by such bodies. This, in part, was a reflection of bitter historical experiences at the hands of the West, an  issue that has been leveraged by a nationalist government.

“China exploited the benefits but did not fully agree with the current system of international law based on its experience of its historical humiliations,” Tokuchi said, referring to China’s entry into global trading networks, which came amid conditions of colonial aggression. “When the system expanded to this region, China was forced to go through unequal treaties and forced into unequal positions. “

US distrust is rising over China – not only in the trade sphere, where Trump is engaged in a tariff war of unprecedented scale, but also in the strategic sphere.

“There is an absolute sea change in viewing China, and it happened very gradually – then all of a sudden,” said Dean Fealk, chair of global strategy and innovation at the Halifax International Security Forum in the US. “It crosses party lines, and geographic lines, from Washington to Silicon Valley.” In reference to China and the US he added, “A relatively declining power is facing a rising power.”

The change is recognized in Beijing where there is a growing sense, amid trade war, of “game on.”

“ I don’t think there is a unified consensus, but in Washington many people believe China is challenging the international order, so Washington should change course and even push for a de-linkage or  a decoupling,” Chen noted.  “In Beijing, I have not observed a new strategy toward the US, but there is a view that China should prepare for a more hostile US.”

In the post-Cold War era, China is a more dangerous opponent for the US than the Soviet Union ever was, Tokuchi warned.

“This is not the same as the USA versus the old USSR: China is already integrated into the global economy,” he said. “China is stronger than the former USSR, even though Russia now had many nuclear weapons: China is a military, political, economic and cultural power. The USSR did not have all these [elements].”

No alliances

The new confrontation is playing out globally and is particularly dangerous in Northeast Asia, where there are multiple points of conflict. “We are witnessing a build-up of military forces, and very provocative nationalism,” said Kim Ki-jung, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “Historical memory, or insufficient reconciliation, is a major problem. History lives as a very important issue in current diplomacy.”

Worryingly, in the region, there are no overriding multilateral economic or security mechanisms to manage disputes and crises.

“You need trust or you can have war by miscalculation,” said Pascal Boniface of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs. “So the main task is how to prevent a crisis from turning into a war.”

While China, North Korea and Russia face off against Japan, South Korea and the US in the region in a broadly ideological conflict of authoritarian states versus democracies, there is no actual trilateral alliance binding either of the two groups.

“There is an absence of balance of forces, there are no strong alliances and the actors are too different,” Boniface said, “It is difficult to find a common approach. Absent multinational organizations, there are too many differences between the actors.”

Amid loose alliances, and in a situation where economic interests and supply chains are no longer focused on the Western economies of the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement, but are increasingly intertwined with China, taking sides  is more complicated than ever.

“The competition between the US and China is  a choice between liberal capitalism and authoritarian capitalism,” said Tokuchi.” Some countries are being forced to make a choice.”

For Japan and South Korea, which haves strategic alliances with Washington, but which both share Beijing as their number-one trade partner, this choice is troubling.

“Countries in the region are in a complicated geometry,” said Chen. “They don’t want to be forced to take sides, they want to maintain strategic autonomy.”

And as witnessed by the current trade tensions between Seoul and Tokyo, history is a powerful emotive force and casus belli that undercuts US attempts at alliance building. “In Europe we are able, with German and French scholars, to write a history book,” said Boniface. “I don’t think that is possible between Korea and Japan, or between China and Japan.”

Another point of contention is the myriad territorial disputes over ownership of islands and islets in the region. “Most countries in this region are competing over physical space, not ideas or principles” said Tokuchi.

Still, even in a region home to one of the most dangerous states on earth – nuclear-armed North Korea – peace prevails. “War is not imaginable, it would be too costly,” said Boniface. “I think all the actors are rational, even Kim Jong Un.”

Northeast Asia is central to the global economy. Given today’s interconnectivities, the region’s various problems – notably the trade war between Beijing and Washington, and possible disruptions to global supply chains from the Seoul-Tokyo dispute – are de facto global problems.

“The maintenance of crises in the region is still costly – what happens between the China and the US has an effect on the EU and South America,” said Boniface.

“What happens in Northeast Asia no longer stays in Northeast Asia,” added Fealk.

Southeast Asia

The ripples from the rise of China and the ongoing fracture of the global order are also being felt in trade entrepot/conflict zone Southeast Asia.

“There are two metaphors for Southeast Asia,” said Nicholas Bisley, a professor of international relations at Australia’s La Trobe University. “One is a ‘corridor’ which peoples, cultures and trade flow through; the other is a ‘wrestling mat’ where great powers collide and where you have had wars of both colonization and post-colonization.”

Southeast Asian states do not have the bilateral alliances with the United States shared by Japan and South Korea, nor the economic heft of the two manufacturing giants. In the region, Beijing is dangling a huge economic carrot, through Belt and Road Initiative investments. At the same time, it is brandishing a major stick in the form of man-made, weaponized islands it has raised in the South China Sea.

Beijing’s strategy in the latter case is reminiscent of the terrestrial power China has historically been, rather than the seaborne, global power it seeks to be, opined one expert.

“Continental powers have continental mindsets, maritime powers have maritime mindsets,” said Tokuchi. “China has a concept of ‘maritime territory’ to include its continental shelf, and this sounds like an extension of the concept of land territory to the ocean.”

However, unlike fractured Northeast Asia, which has neither an EU- or NAFTA-style economic union nor a NATO-style security body, Southeast Asia is bound by ASEAN. The challenges facing this body are considerable, given the way great power rivalry is expanding through the region’s various thoroughfares and across geographies.

“The problem facing Southeast Asia is that great power rivalry is back and there is a risk of Southeast Asia becoming a wrestling mat again,” said Bisley. “ There is an expansion of security threats from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific.”

And yet, ASEAN has multiple internal problems impacting its effectiveness. There are divisions within the institution between liberal and less liberal states, between old and new entrants to the organization and between prosperous and less prosperous states. Moreover, ASEAN states themselves squabble over maritime features such as reefs and islands.

These fractures, “freeze consensual decision-making,” Bisely said.

And Southeast Asia, like Northeast Asia, is impacted by the complicating factor of China’s centrality to supply chains. “There is a growing divergence between security and economic interests,” Bisley said. ASEAN is now “facing a future that is not as economically aligned with the West as in the past.”

As a result of these various dynamics, ASEAN has been unable to present any kind of effective regional challenge to Chinese incursions onto its hometown turf, the South China Sea.

“ASEAN has got to avoid the tendency to take no position – this does not help security,” stormed Parmendra Kumar Singh, a retired Indian general who directs the United Service Institution of India. “It only makes you weak! “[ASEAN] has to raise issues, not push them under the carpet.”

Absent an effective regional military deterrent, recourses to the international system – such as the Philippines’ legal challenge to Chinese incursions – are ineffective.

“We say, ‘We will have a rule-based system,’ but that does not work,” said Singh. “China created and militarized these islands, they claim the waters around them and the airspace above them. It’s not acceptable! Is this right? Should we settle for it?”

Additionally, China can cite other states’ hypocrisy. “As often as China fails to adhere to international rules and we say “South China Sea!” they say “Guantanamo Bay!’” said Bisley. “The world is as much about power as it is about rules. “

In the South China Sea, through exercise of power, China has essentially won. “We make a bit of a noise, but China can get away with it,” Bisley noted. “We need to do something about it or learn how to live with it. This is where we are now.”

The costs paid by China

Absent an effective ASEAN deterrent, other states have filled the security vacuum.

“ASEAN should be speaking up and should not expect outsiders to say, ‘Only we will do it,’”  said Singh in reference to the freedom of navigation cruises undertaken in the South China Sea by the US Navy as well as by players such as Australia, France and the UK.

With ASEAN incapable of countering China, a new alliance, the “Quad,” is taking shape to take action in the Indo-Pacific with the membership of Australia, India, Japan and the United States. But one regional US ally and player in both the trade and military fields – a player with shared values and interest in freedom of navigation – is notably absent.

South Korea “is juxtaposed between China and the US,” said Choe Wong-gi of Seoul’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. “We share values with the US, but our level of action is not the same. We don’t want to antagonize China. “That is one reason we are not so proactive in the US Indo-Pacific strategy.”

Noting that South Korea’s attitude is shared by ASEAN, he continued. “We don’t want to get forced to take sides.”

And South Korea, unlike ASEAN, faces a further complicating factor.  “The idea of the Indo-Pacific came from Japan and that is uncomfortable for us, as in Korea any security cooperation with Japan is a political risk,” he said. “Joint exercises with the Japan Self Defense Forces are out of the question – especially for the [current] administration.”

But however, problematic it is for US-led players in the region to come up with shared strategies or bodies to compete with China, Beijing’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea have impacted its own reputation.

“This has raised costs for China, It has made us realize that Xi Jinping’s China is not Hu Jintao’s China,” Bisley said. “Now, we have realized we are dealing with a different China and most countries are quite concerned.”

And China’s play in the South China Sea has served notice to other states. “It is moving out toward the Indian Ocean – it’s all linked!” Singh warned. “It is a threat to security. We should not shy away from it.”