Food for Thought: "China's Rise: Still the Most Important Strategic Issue"

"Nothing can alter the global order as much as China’s ambitions and its growing political and economic weight. Nothing would be as fatal and disruptive as an armed conflict in the Pacific region", Wolfgang Ischinger writes in the October issue of our Monthly Mind column on the occasion of the upcoming MSC Core Group Meeting in Beijing on November 2/3. "Peace and stability in Asia are a fundamental prerequisite for a functioning world economy, and thus for prosperity and peace in Europe, too."

Chairman of the Munich Security Conference Wolfgang Ischinger (Photo: MSC/Kuhlmann).

"Maintaining peace and security across the Asia-Pacific is increasingly crucial to global progress," a now-famous essay in October 2011, entitled "America's Pacific Century", argued. At that time, the Obama administration proposed a fundamental "pivot" of American foreign policy priorities – away from the Middle East and towards the Asia Pacific region.


Today, the author of this programmatic essay, Hillary Clinton, is likely about to be elected President of the United States. In the five years since, new conflicts, especially in Ukraine, in Syria, and in Libya, have confirmed the concerns of those who have criticized the "pivot": Europe and especially the Middle East are still of salient importance for global stability and thus for US foreign policy. Instability and conflict appear to arise more frequently in regions where US commitment and presence are being reduced. (This should be kept in mind especially by those who condemn US interventions in the last 15 years as the sole root cause of all evil.)


As much as the "pivot" to the Pacific (now more moderately referred to as "rebalancing") has partly been outpaced by reality, it is still a fundamentally sound approach from a global perspective. China's (re-)emergence remains the most important strategic development of our time. And dealing with this new reality is still the single most important longer-term task facing the United States, but Europe as well.


The current crisis of the European security order is real and extremely dangerous. Syria is a moral and political catastrophe. But nothing can alter the global order as much as China's ambitions and its growing political and economic weight. Nothing would be as fatal and disruptive as an armed conflict in the Pacific region. Peace and stability in Asia are a fundamental prerequisite for a functioning world economy, and thus for prosperity and peace in Europe, too. For instance, a blockade of maritime trade routes in Southeast Asia would greatly hurt the export-based German economy.


To be clear, an armed conflict between the US and China or between China and its neighbors is not inevitable, as some would like to make us believe. Quite the contrary, there is even reason for some optimism that China's further rise as well as US-China relations could continue to develop peacefully.


However, the risk of military clashes in the region has increased. There are numerous unresolved territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, and China is underpinning its claims with growing assertiveness. Military spending in Asia has more than doubled in the last decade. In 2014, for the first time, Asian military spending has surpassed military spending of European states. Several countries of the Pacific region are calling upon the US for protection, whereas others, not least the Philippines, turn to China. This will lead to further tensions.


And there are several additional reasons why China deserves our utmost attention. Since party and state leader Xi Jinping came into office, the Chinese leadership has engaged in unprecedented diplomatic and foreign policy activities. Just three important examples: First, Beijing is increasingly setting up separate or even parallel institutions of "global governance", some of which are in competition with Western-established liberal mechanisms. Second, Beijing's "new silk road" initiative, a gigantic global infrastructure project, will increase China"s presence and influence in large parts of Asia, Africa, the Pacific as well as the Indian Ocean, and even into Europe. Third, Beijing is more actively – even though so far selectively – participating in international crisis management efforts.


Far-reaching implications for the international order, which result from all this, are emerging. How can China be better integrated in (so far mostly Western-built) international institutions and regulatory frameworks? In which areas can and will China accept greater responsibility? How can European, American and Chinese interests be brought together and where will diverging values and interests almost inevitably lead to conflict? Where do new possibilities for cooperation arise, for example in efforts to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions? Will, in the context of the Silk Road initiative, Chinese foreign investments be followed by a Chinese military presence?


To find substantive answers to these and other vital questions, we need a close dialogue with China more than ever. This is why the Munich Security Conference will bring together next week – in consultation with the Chinese government – leaders from the West, from China, and from other states of the Asia-Pacific region for intensive strategic discussions in Beijing.


One important topic will be to define what an EU Asia policy can or should accomplish. So far, the policy of many EU member states towards China focuses on bilateral economic cooperation. The new "EU Global Strategy", presented this summer by the EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, announced the goal of a more coherent EU policy towards China and a more comprehensive approach towards Asia, including more practical contributions to Asian security. "We will deepen economic diplomacy and scale up our security role in Asia", Mogherini writes. Both are urgently needed. But how realistic is this?


If a Clinton administration wanted to continue the process of rebalancing towards Asia, Europe would benefit: a China that rises peacefully, without conflict with the US, taking into account the rights and interests of its neighbors – that would be of great value for global progress as well as for global peace.

Wolfgang Ischinger is chairman of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) and professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. A shorter version of this article was published in German in Frankfuter Allgemeine Zeitung on October 28, 2016. The MSC organizes a conference in Beijing on November 2/3, 2016. For further information see MSC Core Group Meeting.

28 October 2016, by Wolfgang Ischinger