By Eduardo Araral
THE tension in the Korean peninsula is putting to test the future of United States-China relations.
US President Donald Trump has accused China of not taking a tougher stance on North Korea.
To convince China to take a tougher stance, Henry Kissinger, former US Sectretary of State has proposed that the US first agree with China about “what follows after the collapse of the North Korean regime”.
A central part of the agreement would be for the United States to withdraw its forces along the Korean demilitarised zone (DMZ) at the 38th parallel, after the regime’s collapse.
As the logic goes, this would help to allay China’s fears of a US military base next to its border.
At the heart of Kissinger’s proposal is the problem of credible commitment and the need for strategic reassurance.
Firstly, given the uncertainty, distrust, and fear inherent Sino-American relations, China may not believe in the US commitment to withdraw.
Secondly, if the United States agrees to withdraw, this would weaken its status as a security guarantor in the region, and precipitate a regional arms race.
Strategic reassurance is the answer to both concerns.
The United States has strong incentives to agree with China on what follows the collapse of North Korea, including the removal of troops from the DMZ.
This option is attractive to the United States, compared to a scenario of a nuclear-armed and intercontinental ballistic missile–capable North Korea; a denuclearised North Korea is also in China’s interest.
However, before China can agree to take a tougher stance on North Korea, the United States has to offer a credible commitment to China to reduce its fears of a US military base next to its border.
In practice, strategic reassurance means that a party is willing to pay a high price, as a way to signal its credibility to the other party.
The higher the cost, the more credible the signal.
The Kissinger formula is one good example. Another example is Iran’s nuclear deal with Western powers. Iran had agreed to third party inspections, to reassure Western countries of its compliance, who in turn rewarded Iran’s following of the pact, despite the Trump administration’s open opposition to the deal.
On the second issue of regional security, the United States would have to reassure its allies, Japan and South Korea, that collateral damage from a war with North Korea would be minimal, and that their security interests would not be compromised in a post-North Korean regime scenario.
This is where the United States and China could bargain for a new security architecture, but the window of opportunity to do so under a non-crisis scenario is getting smaller by the day, as North Korea develops its capabilities.
However, if the reassurance is successful, a new security architecture in East Asia could emerge.
More importantly, for the future of Sino-American relations, the Kissinger formula of strategic reassurance is the way out of Graham Allison’s “Thucydides Trap”, which suggests that the relationship between a rising power and an incumbent power is fraught with uncertainty, distrust and fear.
China, as the rising power, has to convince the United States, the incumbent power, that it is not a threat to US security, and is not out to undermine US core interests.
Similarly, the United States has to convince China that Chinese core interests will not be harmed. However, given the uncertainty, distrust and fear that underlie Sino-American relations, both countries may be unable to make and keep credible commitments to each other.
Some scholars have argued that the Thucydides Trap is not inevitable, by citing three factors: China lacks global military power to challenge the United States, the United States and China are irrevocably interdependent in their economic integration and the broad-based domestic politics in both countries are driven by interest groups, rather than ideology.
However, neither theory nor history can predict the future of Sino-American relations.
Given the inherent uncertainty, distrust and fear in the relationship, both sides would have to find ways to keep their relations stable. In the last 30 years, the United States and China have made the relationship work through strategic engagement, dialogue and reassurance.
Steady and careful engagement has enabled China to be integrated into the global economy, and now the United States and China are interdependent.
Strategic dialogue allows for bargaining in non-crisis situations, while verification reduces, but not fully eliminates, uncertainties and suspicion each party has about the other’s motivation. Strategic reassurance helps to maintain the threshold of trust necessary to maintain a cooperative equilibrium.
Furthermore, if the current round of Sino-American relations proves to be non-cooperative, there is always the possibility of resetting it in the next round, under a new set of actors.
It is also important that the United States and China understand the costs of a major conflict, in order to avoid it as much as possible.
In fact, cooperation and not conflict is the dominant strategy in Sino-American relations.
These factors – plus the pragmatism of China’s top leaders, as shown by how they have so far dealt with the Trump administration – make it possible for both countries to cooperate with each other, despite their inherent rivalry. In short, there is a basis for optimism, in terms of Sino-American relations.
If the prospects of a cooperative equilibrium depend on trust, then what are the indications that commitments or reassurances from both parties are no longer trustworthy?
Firstly, commitments are less likely to be credible, if leaders can no longer control and insulate themselves from hardliner pressure, or if they are unable to counter hardline voices and interests.
Secondly, commitments become less credible when – in the case of the United States – the opposition party may win an election based on a promise to overturn the policies of the ruling party. Under such a condition, the ruling party would be hard put to make credible commitments.
In conclusion, strategic reassurance has important implications for framing the future of Sino-American relations, not just on the Korean peninsula, but also in terms of China’s relations with its neighbours. Instead of descending into a spiral of fear, it is possible for the United States and China to build a spiral of trust.
Sino-American relations do not need to end up in a Thucydides Trap, if they can solve the problem of credible commitment.
* Eduardo Araral is an Associate Professor and Vice-Dean of Research at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He is also a Faculty Associate at the Centre for Asia and Globalisation
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015