Sino-US Relations, Indo-Pacific Security and International Law

Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump visited China during his trip to Asia. In his talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Trump discussed Asian security issues, including the South China Sea dispute and the North Korean nuclear situation.

At the same time at the University of Helsinki, the South China Sea and North Korea were the topics of keynote speeches given by visiting Chinese scholars – Shi Yinhong (Renmin University) and Li Mingjiang (Nanyang Technological University) – at two keenly anticipated events: the Finnish Institute of International Affairs‘ annual China Research Day and the Finnish University Network for Asian Studies’ Asian Studies Days.

The theme of these events was ‘China-US Relations and Asian Security’, and both were co-organized by the Finnish Center of Chinese Law and the Chinese Legal Culture and the Faculty of Law at the University of Helsinki .

The theme of this year’s China Research Day and Asian Studies Days was timely and important, especially given the concurrent visit of President Trump to China. As was emphasized in the keynote speeches and subsequent discussions, the relationship between China and the US is, and will remain, a critical dynamic in Asian and global security for the foreseeable future.

As the event organizers noted, the backdrop to the theme of this year’s events – and the larger framework in which discussions between the US and Chinese Presidents took place – was the relative stability, prosperity and increasing transnational connectivity of the Asian region over the last three decades.

But recent developments suggest that the regional security situation is increasingly volatile.

First, North Korea poses a threat to regional stability for two reasons: its nuclear threat and the instability of its regime. In response to North Korea’s nuclear, WMD and proliferation programs, the United Nations Security Council, as well as many states, have implemented sanctions in relation to North Korea .

The second development discussed in the keynote addresses was the South China Sea dispute. China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam have for centuries had a long-standing dispute over territory in the South China Sea. But China’s increased militarization of the area and disregard for international law have served to escalate tensions.

China Naval drills

Chinese and Russian vessels during a China-Russia naval joint drill off south China’s Guangdong Province in September 2016. In July 2017, Chinese and Russian naval forces carried out joint military simulation exercises in the Baltic Sea –  the first joint naval exercise China and Russia have held in the region (Source: Xinhua File Photo/Zha Chunming)

Another troubling development that is the often overlooked is the East China Sea situation and the risks it poses. The East China Sea, where eight uninhabited islands controlled by Japan are hotly contested by China, has perhaps even greater potential to ignite into armed conflict. China has similarly increased its military activity in the region.

Add to this volatile mix President Trump, whose approach to security in the Indo-Pacific has been characterized by equivocation and ambivalence. President’s Trump’s recent visit to Asia was ostensibly made to underscore his ‘commitment to longstanding US alliances and partnerships, and reaffirm US leadership in promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region’. But immediately after leaving China, President Trump seemed to discard the notion of the ‘Indo-Pacific dream’. The Trump presidency has had the effect of not only magnifying tensions in the US-China relationship, but has fueled greater uncertainty in the increasingly fragile Asian security situation.

The implications of the Sino-US relationship for security in the Indo-Pacific are manifold and critical.

As was mentioned during the events at the University of Helsinki, the challenge is that the US and China have different visions for global order over the next century. And there are clear tensions between US and China regarding security in Asia. The Trump presidency aside, longstanding US policy has been to defend and expand US security and other interests in the region. In contrast, under the leadership of President Xi, China has increasingly positioned itself as a replacement to US leadership not just in Asia but globally. In addition to President Xi’s signature ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative, China’s ‘New Asian Security Concept’ sees the US-led regional security order being gradually replaced by China, which will provide incentives to regional states if they acquiesce to China’s strategic goals.

The rationale underpinning China’s position for regional security dominance is that only an Asian power can lead Asian states. Indeed, Chinese influence has waxed as US influence has waned. David Shambaugh, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, writes that ‘the perceptual shift in the balance of power and the balance of influence away from the U.S. and towards China is unmistakable, and is evident in many spheres and in many countries’. From a defence perspective, allies feel they can no longer rely on the US to protect their interests.

But militarily the US remains a force to be reckoned with. It’s unlikely that US military influence will be displaced for many years to come, given the huge US naval presence in Asia and its network of allies. Because of US military strength, deep economic inter-dependency between the US and China, and for a variety of other reasons, former Australian Prime Minister and frequent commentator on the US-China relationship, Kevin Rudd, is right in arguing that direct military confrontation between China and the US is unlikely for at least the next decade.

Speculations of future armed conflict in Asia aside, what became clear through the events held at the University of Helsinki is that the theme of US-China relations and its implications for Asian security is a live and pressing issue with far-reaching implications for both the Indo-Pacific region and the world. Both events were over-subscribed and attended by people from different professional backgrounds – academics, students, Finnish government officials, foreign diplomats (including the Chinese Ambassador to Finland), those from the business and non-profit sectors, and Finnish media.

Such keen interest is a clear testimony to the need for ongoing research and education into Sino-US relations and the implications it has for international law, security and relations. The Finnish China Law Center and Faculty of the Law at the University of Helsinki look forward to co-organizing these important annual events in the future.

Stuart Mooney is Coordinator of the Finnish Center of Chinese Law and Legal Culture at the University of Helsinki. Previously, he was a Legal Specialist in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, where he implemented, administered and enforced United Nations Security Council sanctions and Australian autonomous sanctions in relation to North Korea and other countries.