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    Greater China
     Mar 18, 2006
A 'little NATO' against China
By Purnendra Jain

ADELAIDE - After her two-day visit to Indonesia this week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Australia on Thursday for a three-day official visit - her first since her appointment.

Although she has a busy schedule with many official meetings, press conferences and speeches, her main and most crucial business is to participate at the inaugural ministerial-level trilateral

security dialogue with two of the United States' closest and most trusted allies in the Pacific - Australia and Japan.

This ministerial-level meeting has drawn the attention of political leaders and analysts across the Asia-Pacific region. Many view the new "triple alliance" with suspicion. There is a concern that this might be the beginning of a new Cold War-type alliance in which China is cast as the adversary.

This suspicion has become even stronger in the light of the comments made by Rice before her departure for Indonesia. China, she claimed, could become a "negative force" in the region. Consequently "all of us in the region, particularly those of us who are long-standing allies, have a joint responsibility and obligation to try [to] produce conditions in which the rise of China will be a positive force in international politics, not a negative force". Not surprisingly then, China's military and economic rise would be at the core of the trilateral security discussions.

This development will not be taken kindly in many capitals around the region. Although China has not responded to Rice's comment, it will most certainly make Beijing furious. To make a particular country the main item of discussion, as Rice has suggested, is far from the stated aims when the process was put in place five years ago.

The trilateral security dialogue process was put forward by Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and endorsed by then US secretary of state Colin Powell and then foreign minister of Japan Makiko Tanaka in July 2001. The proposal was made in light of the weakening of multilateral processes such as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in economic and security spheres, and growing concerns by the three nations over both North Korea's nuclear capability and China's intentions in relation to Taiwan and its growing defense capabilities. These and other security-related concerns, such as global terrorism, led conservative governments in Australia and Japan to link themselves with the United States and each other.

At the time the process was mooted in 2001, Downer emphasized the importance of closer Australia-Japanese collaboration as a way of fostering a stable security regime in East Asia. Powell spoke of the need to promote more comprehensive regional dialogue with and between its main Pacific allies - Australia and Japan. Both Downer and Powell stressed that any such security dialogue by the three countries would be purely informal and would not develop into anything as substantial as an alliance structure.

The idea behind this process was to break down the tight, mutually exclusive network of bilateral US alliances with Japan and Australia - the "northern and southern anchors" of the US presence in the Pacific. This would lead to better coordination among the three than is possible under bilateral arrangements. The expectation was that the two spokes - Japan and Australia - would be able to share information and formulate a common approach in keeping with the hub's - the United States' - policy objectives.

To this end, all that was required was a secure and comfortable venue where the three sides could meet privately and discuss matters of mutual concern. This would permit the participants to share ideas on mutual cooperation without giving it an overt official imprimatur, which might offend some influential Asian governments not privy to the discussions.

However, regional reactions to this proposal ranged from concern to outright condemnation. China's state-controlled media strongly condemned the move, describing it as the formation of a US-led policy of containment designed specifically to hem in Chinese strategic aspirations in East Asia. Some commentators in China dubbed the arrangement a "little NATO" in the Asia-Pacific region.

Southeast Asian leaders have been generally comfortable with the existing regional security arrangement represented by the ARF and believe the new development will undermine it. Others see it as an exclusive security club of wealthy, technologically advanced states. Although not as vocal as China's, there has been a sense of discomfort in many Southeast Asian nations, especially among regional allies of the US such as Singapore and Thailand.

Despite such concerns, the informal trilateral security dialogue process has continued at a bureaucratic level in the national capitals of the three nations since 2001. Because of the subtle and opaque nature of the meetings, it has been difficult to get a detailed understanding of their content, or a sense of their ultimate purpose regarding the development of a trilateral security dialogue process. One could only assume that the troika of Pacific powers stayed true to its original intent on keeping strategic dialogue among them as quiet as possible.

Now, though, the game has been lifted to a higher level. The decision was made a year ago in Washington that a regular three-way strategic dialogue would be conducted at a ministerial level. Wide-ranging security issues related to Indonesia, the recent US-India nuclear deal, Iraq and Afghanistan will figure prominently at the inaugural meeting. Nevertheless, the issue being watched most carefully by outsiders is the discussion on China.

Rice has expressed concerns about China's growing military and economic power and its possible negative effect on the region. She would like China to be discussed in detail, but the Australian side sees China in a different light. Indeed, Downer has emphasized that the intent of the process is not to form a "little NATO", nor does Australia support a policy of containing China. Downer believes that China's economic power should be harnessed to the advantage of the region - a position quite different from the current US thinking. Australia has a huge economic interest in China and sees potential for further growth. Canberra is poised to sign an agreement to sell uranium to China.

As far as Japan is concerned, it is unlikely that it would favor ganging up against China even though there are serious Sino-Japanese frictions. It is not in the overall interest of Japan's foreign policy openly to support a containment policy when trade and economic relations with China are prospering and Tokyo is trying to improve its relations with Beijing.

The participants at this ministerial-level trilateral security dialogue need to tread very cautiously. There is no harm in like-minded nations getting together and talking about issues of mutual concerns. But this should happen in a transparent manner and should not target a particular nation. China can and must be discussed at the meeting, but not just as a threat or in the mold of a negative force. The three participating nations should find ways and means as to how best to engage China.

If a trilateral dialogue process such as this one turns into a formal alliance-type grouping, it may trigger a dangerous response across the region. Already there are talks about a China-India-Russia trilateral framework. Another proposal was made by Japan this year to establish a trilateral framework dialogue and security cooperation with India and the United States. A Japanese ambassador to India at some stage even suggested a three-way dialogue process among Tokyo, Beijing and New Delhi.

Proliferation of trilateral frameworks with major powers participating in them would have serious consequences on the current security architecture. For example, they would undermine the ARF process and smaller nations in Southeast Asia would have no effective security forum where they could express their concerns and feel confident that their voice would make a difference.

No doubt growing worries about terrorism and about nuclear developments in the Korean Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East have placed new demands on regional leaders. However, it is not necessarily politically sensible for a select group of nations to band together and exclude others - a Cold War-type response. A cooperative and inclusive framework rather than exclusion and containment would be a better way forward.

Purnendra Jain is professor and head of Adelaide University's Center for Asian Studies in Australia.

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