Security in East Asia. Is China a new hegemon?
East Asia is one of the most rapidly developing regions of the world. One fifth of the world population lives here. Growing economies of China, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines make important impact into the world trade flows. Region is not homogeneous. China is the biggest country, economic and military potential of which is becoming more and more significant. Another important player is Japan. For several post II World War decades it was the most developed country in the region, but due to the post war set up it did not pursue its military policy. As the result of the World War II the US presence in the regional security set up was dominant. The US has a military alliance with Japan, bilateral security agreements with major countries of the region, as well as significant military deployments in Asia and Pacific. The security in the region in the second part of the 20th century to the large extent was defined by the US interests, but recently with the rise of China, the balance of powers seems to start shifting.
In all official statements Chinese authorities constantly stress that China rise is peaceful and it is not a threat to the security in the region. However, Chinese policies often challenge this view. In particular China reserves only the right for unilateral decisions in the areas, which it considers domestic, or falling under its sovereignty. The problem is that the geographical limits of Chinese sovereignty are often contested and the territories, which Beijing considers as domestic are claimed by other states. This leads to growing tensions in the region. So far China has been progressing in its claims and neighbors neither individually, nor collectively were not able to counteract. Such developments together with the declining economic power of the US and growing power of China may lead observers to the conclusion that Beijing is going to become new hegemon in the region, or the country, which has preponderant influence or control over the region, creating satellite relations with dependent states, or establishing its zone of influence.
In this essay I am going to argue that although China is the most powerful player in the region, at least in the middle-term period it is not going to acquire hegemonic power in the region. China is not going to become the hegemon in the short term, as the military presence of the US is still significant, as well as Japan is preforming efficient diplomacy to unite smaller states to balance China in ongoing territorial conflicts. Moreover, potentially threatening security problems like North Korea, Taiwan issue, or maritime borders are quite complex and have potential implications for the global security, which ensures close attention to the region of the US and international institutions.
Security architecture in East Asia after 2nd World War
During the second part of the 20th century the security landscape in East Asia was determined by the balance of powers created after the Second World War and subsequent Cold War. The hegemonic power setting up the scene was the US, which continues to play the key role in the region. The US’ impact was key to the balance of powers as it played an active role in the two major conflicts - Korean war and Vietnam, as well as a key role in securing Taiwan’s independence from China. There are 3 key actors defining the security landscape in the region: US, China and Japan. The role of the USSR and then Russia also has an impact, especially on the military conflicts in the region.
In the middle of the 20th century as the part of China containment strategy US created so called security system focused on the bilateral agreements with the countries of the East Asian region. In the early 1950s, the US concluded security or defense treaties with Australia (1951), New Zealand (1951, the Philippines (1951), Japan (1951), and Korea (1953). In the spring of 1954, the US initiated talks to create a regional alliance, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).
The structure has been working for the half of the century quite successfully. However, towards the end of the century the countries of the region started development of the multilateral security structures. First and foremost such structures are represented by ASEAN and APF, but significant role is also played by Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as Track II dialog mechanism (M.Lanteigne, 2005).
Although the operations of the multilateral security structures have not been really remarkable, development of such platform shows the growing trend of emancipation from the structures created by the US in the region. At the same time, the role of China in providing security is growing. As political opposition between communist and capitalist models passed away as well as with the growing economic interdependence of the region, China becomes more and more confident and strong in voicing its requirements in security sphere.
China’s regional security strategy
During the last half of the century China has been evolving from a dominant preoccupation with the domestic issues to the growing confidence and influence in the region and globally. Just due to the size of the territory, population and growing economic strength China naturally belongs to the most influential states of the world. In the region these legacies are doubled by historical domination of China and perception of China as the center of civilization. The latter factor is getting more and more emphasis in the public discourse due to the nationalistic moods and popular concepts developed by intellectuals. Nevertheless, Chinese careful position of the responsible leader dominates so far. This vision implies that China is not seeking the hegemony, as it was stated in Deng Xiaoping’s doctrine buyao dangtou (do not seek leadership). Consequently the main instrument of the building relations in the region is “great power diplomacy” with the objective of building if not friendly but at least stable and peaceful relations in the region (Z.Yunling, T.Shiping, 2005: 49).
As the region was for decades dominated by one hegemon - the US, the dominating discourse of Chinese officials now is the advocacy of multilateralism - partnerships development and community-building is considered to be the key for providing security. Analyzing Chinese White paper on arms control and disarmament, G. Bates mentions: “Indirectly referring to the US, the document expressed concern with continued hegemonism, power politics and Cold War thinking as the source of problems for the world piece and denounced enlargement of military blocks [i.e.NATO] and the strengthening of the military alliances” (G. Bates, 2005: 249). China’s vision of the multilateralism in the region is embodied in the growing cooperation in terms of APEC, ASEAN, ARF, Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Track II dialog.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967 and did not accept socialist regimes as members. However, during 1990s this strategy was reviewed, which allowed partnership with China, as well as with Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In 1994 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was established as the platform for the security cooperation. China is currently a member of both structures and its voice is becoming stronger and stronger. China definitely does not want to be bound by the decisions taken by the regional structures, thus its principal position is for preservation of ARF operation by consensus as well as for the absence of the enforcement mechanisms. Currently all decisions of the Forum are consultative. Some scholars relate such a position of China to the study of the lessons of OSCE creation. Mark Lanteigne argues: “China’s objections stemmed from its perceptions that the OSCE’s inclusion of human rights issues into its security dialogues contributed to the erosion of the Soviet Union” (M. Lanteigne, 2005: 93). Moreover, China has been actively creating separate mechanisms within ASEAN (for instance ministerial level initiative Cooperative Operations in Response to Dangerous Drugs).
Another instrument of regional security dialog supported by China is so called “Track II”. This is a dialog platform for academics, diplomats and second rank officials. It allows informal communication and exchange of ideas. It should be noted that even on this level China is reluctant to allow Taipei to have a separate voice. For instance, one of the most influential groups of the Track II is the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific. China insisted on semi-governmental structure of the group and insisted that Taiwanese representatives can participate only as individuals and cannot be represented in the Steering Committee (M. Lanteigne, 2005).
Thus, if we look closer on the nature of the relationships China is building, it looks like China is accepting the responsibilities quite selectively and is not prepared to negotiate positions, which it’s leadership perceives as core national interests, no matter how harmful such position is for the “friendly atmosphere” in the region. Although Chinese influence on the multilateral institutions is growing, it is worth mentioning that such institutions play secondary role in the regional security architecture and many countries give priority to bilateral relations with the US, as well as we will see below, Japan is actively developing alternative to multilateral structures, which have potential to constrain Chinese aggressive policies.
Conflicts in East Asia
On the eve of the dissolution of the colonial system China had 3 breakaway territories - Hong Kong (was under British administration), Macao (Portuguese colony) and Taiwan. As a result of successful negotiations, China managed to reintegrate Hong Kong (in 1997) and Macao (in 1999). The situation with Taiwan is much more complicated. As it was the territory to which nationalistic government of Chiang Kai-Shek retreated, Chinese government felt threatened due to Chiang Kai-Shek intentions to fight back, as well as Beijing considers itself in the full right to fight for the reintegration of the territory into the one China.
China attempted using force in Taiwan Strait in 1954 and 1958, which provoked large crisis in terms of the Cold war. Military activities of China were aimed at destroying military bases on the islands close to the mainland. During 2 months in 1954 PLA shelled Fujan and Jinmen islands. But such actions had counterproductive result, as soon after the shelling US and Taiwan began formal negotiations over a mutual defense treaty. The Document was signed on December 2, 1954. However, the treaty did not specify whether the coastal islands would be covered by the US protection. Only Taiwan and Penghu islands were mentioned in the document. Another regional security developments were only increasing concerns of Beijing. T. Fravel mentions that China’s concern was only raised by the fact that: “US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty would incorporate Taiwan into this network, further increasing the KMT’s international support while reducing the odds of Taiwan unification with China. The division of Vietnam at the 1954 Geneva conference affirmed a Cold War trend of partitioning nations such as Korea and Germany” (M.T. Fravel, 2008: 236).
US also made a sharp response to the shelling of Jinmen and Mazu islands by PLA in August 1958. On September 4, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles stated that US would use force to prevent PRC from capturing Janmen. Before this escalation the information leaked that the US were planning to place nuclear-tipped Matador missiles on the island. US also constructed large airbase capable of supporting B-52 bombers that potentially could be used in strikes against Chinese mainland. In November 1957 joint Taiwan-US military exercises were held in the Strait. In March 1958 US consolidated 17 military aid agencies that had been established to provide assistance to Taiwan into the Taiwan-US defense command.
However, the situation in the East Asian region often required cooperation between China and US and did not allow Washington to push too hard for Taiwanese independence. In particular, after 1958 the US needed to stabilize relations with China as it increased its involvement in Vietnam. This led to more careful position of the US towards Taipei. When Chiang Kai-Shek mobilized to attach the mainland in the spring of 1962, for example, United States indicated clearly to China that if Chiang did launch an attack, he would do so without American support. By 1971 US agreed to reduce its military support for Taiwan.
China was also gradually changing its approach towards Taiwan. Under Mao, China had pursued a policy of liberation achieving unification by force if necessary, Once the US intervened in the conflict in the summer of 1950, China’s leaders viewed liberation as the long term process that required strengthening China’s military power and eliminating US backing of the KMT. As Mao described delaying strategy to Kissinger in 1973, “I say that we can do without Taiwan for the time being, and let it come after one hundred years… why is there a need to be in such a great haste?” Further decrease of the conflict was reached when US support was greatly reduced after normalization, China shifted its strategy to the “peaceful unification” (M.T. Fravel, 2008: 250).
Since that time hard response of China was provoked only once. When before the elections in 1999 Taiwanese president Lee-Teng hui publicly claimed that de facto Taiwan is independent state and it does not need formal recognition to prove this fact, Beijing responded with large scale military excursuses in the Taiwan Strait. But the conflict was soon downgraded as this time US did not support move of Taipei, needing China consent on other policy issues (M.T. Fravel, 2008).
Beijing also prevents Taiwan from participation in regional initiatives. In particular China blocked Taipei formal participation in ARF and the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific.
Until recently political situation in Taiwan was favorable for China. The party, which had parliament majority (KMT) for recent 8 years and the president Ma were conducting pro-Chinese policies not stressing the issue of formal independence and sticking to so called status quo framework of One-China. Recent elections, which led to resigning of the KMT cabinet, may shift situation. Thanks to the broad support of youth, Democratic Progressive Party has won the elections. DPP conducts more pro-independence politics and advocates for distancing from China. Although Ma keeps the office by 2016 elections, his politics may become also more moderate.
Thus, although growing economic ties between China and Taiwan were giving grounds for the conclusion that Taipei is gradually moving from the primary reliance on the US and is leaning towards Beijing, the situation is more complicated. The identity of the independent people, which grew in Taiwan during the last half of the century, has influence on the political processes and likely it will ensure that Taipei will be stay cautious towards partnership with China relying on US as the key security partner.
2) Maritime disputes
Maritime disputes are posing the most serious threat to the regional security. As the territorial waters of several coastal states overlap and due to historical precedents when territorial affiliation of islands was changing as the result of wars, contesting versions on delimitation of sovereign territories appear. South China Sea is important for economics (important trade routs, reach seabed resources and fishing resources) and for security reasons. There are bilateral and multilateral disputes. The most prominent case among bilateral disputes is sovereignty over Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Among the multilateral disputes Paracel (Xisha) and Spratly (Nansha) deserve attention.
Diaoyu/Senkaku islands were acquired by Japan as the result of China defeat in Japan-China war in 1985. In accordance with World War II Piece Treaty of Potsdam, Japan had to return all the territories to the states that had sovereignty over them before the war. China claims that the treaty is applicable to Diaoyu/Senkaku. Tokyo however says that the islands were acquired by Japan long before the World War II and at that time they were not inhabited and not claimed by other states and the development of living conditions on the islands was made by Japan.
To strengthen its position Tokyo refrains even from public statement that there is a dispute over the sovereignty over the Diaoyu islands. China maintains hard line in diplomacy insisting on the fact that islands should be returned, but Beijing does not limit its actions by statements only. China regularly sends its maritime law enforcement ships to Diaoyu/Senkaku (50 times during 2013-2014), which Japan considers to be violation of its territorial waters. Moreover, in November 2013, China announced establishment of Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, which requires all the aircraft entering ADIZ to identify themselves and coordinate their movement with Beijing authorities, otherwise China reserves the right to attack. So far ADIZ has never been enforced. Neither Japan, nor US adjusted their military activities in the region and do not notify Beijing on the movement of their aircraft. It should be noted that Japan has its ADIZ since 1969 and efficiently tackles activities of Chinese aircraft. So move of Beijing can be interpreted not as an act of aggression, but as the desire to reach parity. At the same time hreation of Chinese ADIZ is jet another sign of growing strength of Beijing, which ultimately alters positions of US and Japan (J.Holslag, 2014).
Reacting on these developments in 2013 Abe government launched review of Japanese security strategy shifting priorities to the threat of to “an invasion by China of South Japan”, especially the Okinawa islands (Crisis Group Asia Report, 2014)
Another issues fueling multilateral tensions are related to the status of Paracel (Xisha) and Spratly (Nansha) islands. As in case of Diaoyu/Senkaku China never entered into talks regarding sovereignty of these territories. In 2 cases China occupied the territory by force (in 1974 Crescent group in the Western Paracels which was controlled by South Vietnam and in 1988 six features of the Spratlys, regarding which territorial claims were posed by claimed by Vietnam and Phillipines). Since 1949 China compromised only in one offshore territorial dispute - White Dragon Tail. The details of the deal are almost unknown but the leading explanation is that Mao approved the transfer to support North Vietnam in its fight with US (T.Fravel, 2008).
During the long period negotiating the affiliation of offshore islands China
had never raised the issue sovereignty, instead voicing the question of joint crisis management, or joint development of the territories with other coastal states. According to ICG the change in Chinese strategy happened in 2012, when after several months of balancing with Philippines on Scarborough Shoal, Beijing sent regular law enforcement patrols to the area (Crisis Group Asia Report, 2014)
Now it looks like small coastal states started cooperation to constrain China’s assertiveness in maritime disputes. In January 2013 Vietnam appealed to the UN Tribunal seeking a ruling on the validity of China’s nine-dash lines, status of the low tide elevations on the Philippine Continental shelf and Philippines Economic Exclusive Zones around Panatag Island (Scarborough Shoal). On December 11, 2014 Vietnam supported appeal of Philippines and stated that the Tribunal has the competence to interpret the provisions in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea in regards to the construction of artificial islands in the exclusive economic zones and Continental Shelves of coastal states. US ultimately supports both submissions. As of now China claims it is not going to participate in the proceedings. Even if be the decision of the Tribunal will favorable to Philippines and Vietnam, the issues of enforcement may arise, but this development definitely signals change in the strategy of regional powers towards China. It is the first joint attempts to counteract to Beijing’s aggressive policies (Ellen T. Tordesillas, 2014).
On its end Japan is also working on aligning partners to counterbalance China. In 2007 Japan-Australia joint Declaration on Security and Defense was signed. Japan-US military cooperation was also strengthened in October 2013 by transferring new types of high-tech weapons to Japan. Tokyo also concluded agreements on cooperation in sphere of security with Manila, Singapore, Indonesia, Phillipines and Vietnam (J.Holslag, 2014).
Thus dynamics of the maritime disputes is encourage states of the region to unite and act together to constrain Chinese unilateral aggressive policies. Current appeal to the UN Tribunal is strongly supported by the US, as well as development of the cases closely monitored by international institutions. This dynamics gives grounds for the conclusion that also China is the most powerful country in the region in case of joint interests supported by global leaders other Asian countries will be able to balance Chinese influence.
3) North Korea
Although the war in North Korea is long gone it still has an impact on the security dynamics in East Asia. The nuclear weapons in the hands of backward country create the threat for the whole region. The attempts to handle the issue also have an impact on the relations between one of the key economic tigers of the region South Korea and major forces like US and China.
In 1950s partnership with North Korea and its importance for China was grounded in ideology, international security alliances structure and national interests. At the beginning of the XXI century Beijing’s position changed as the importance of the first two factors decreased. Current situation on the peninsula with the existence of two separate countries with different economic and political systems would satisfy China. Its official position says that stability is more important than the unification of Korea (J.H. Chung, 2005). But current set up leads to significant military presence of the US on the peninsula and possibility of deployment of missile defenses.
Hard push on North Korea proved to be inefficient. Neither US ultimatums, nor Chinese diplomatic efforts did not persuade Pyongyang to stop its nuclear program. J.Komberg argues that current balance of military powers leaves no choice for Pyongyang but to keep the arsenal: “North Korea maintains an active military force of nearly 1 million (5 percent of its population), and South Korea’s active force numbers 70000. In addition nearly 40 000 US military personnel are still stationed in South Korea. North Korea’s superior members are balanced by South Korea’s more modern equipment and technology. No longer supported by Russia and increasingly unsure of Chinese support, North Korea is on its own in terms of military might. South Korea has double the population and far more vibrant economy. This leaves North Korea’s leadership with only the nuclear option to ensure its grip on power” (J.F.Kornberg, 2005).
China took the leadership position in the attempt of the mediation of the conflict with Northern Korea, initiating six party talks. Observers mentioned that it was “three-day interruption of oil supplies to North Korea” which contributed to Kim Jong-Il willingness to enter the dialog. Although the negotiations proved to be unproductive both North Korea and US were not ready for compromise, they lifted the status of China as the mediator in the region. Moreover six-party talk were not fruitful. As the result of contacts South Korea managed to get several contracts for Hyundai from Northern Korea. In 2002 South Korea become second largest trade partner of North Korea. Such policy of soft engagement is preferable both for South Korea and China (J. H. Chung, 2005).
South Korea sees the threat in the North Korea, but US straightforward strategies make ROK cautious. Strong push from US in the past only led to the deepening of crisis. Escalation of crisis, or imposition of sanctions over North Korea are against Seoul interests as in such case the majority of businesses would withdraw their investments from South Korea.
Although South Korean relations with China have improved recently, people are still cautious towards Beijing. According to the national survey (2005) only 6.1 % of population says they trust China. The same level of trust has North Korea, whereas trust to US has 19.8% of KOS population. In the case of war almost half of South Korean population (40.9%) expects China to stay neutral and only 0.9% believe that China can become KOS ally and protect it. However, the absolute majority of South Koreans believe that China will have the strongest influence on the economic development of their country in the following decade (73.5%), whereas only 8.7% see America as the key economic partner (Jeffrey W. Legro, 2008).
China is strengthening ties with South Korea not only through economic means. Diplomatic tools are also quite efficiently used by Beijing. China was strong advocate of special status for itself, Japan and South Korea within ASEAN. The format was called ASEAN+3. This cooperation slowly disenchants US. President of South Korea recently came up with the concept of “cooperative independence” and the strategy of regional cooperation, which sometimes evaluated as the drift from US. The concept of “Northeast Asian Balancer” presented by Roh in 2005 mentions US simply as one of many neighbors (Jeffrey W. Legro, 2008). Relations between China and ROK are strengthened on the human level. The movement of people between countries is encouraged and in 2002 South Korean students in China amounted 42% (D. Shaumbaugh, 2005). Another tool of Chinese diplomacy towards South Korea is based on interpretation of the history. Both Seoul and Beijing have painful memories of Japanese occupation. During the recent visit to Seoul Xi condemned Japanese aggression. Another symbolic event was the opening of a memorial hall to Korean Ahn Jung-geun, who in 1909 assassinated Hirobumi Ito, first resident governor of then Japanese-run Korea (Crisis Group Asia Report, 2014).
However South Korea still relies primary on the US in its security and defense strategy. The US stays the main supplier of arms for South Korea (SIPRI, 2013)
Thus, Beijing plays key role in potentially explosive conflict around North Korea. China is using the situation to strengthen ties with South Korea. Diplomatic relations of two powerful Asian states indeed became warmer, however, South Korean pubic still does not trast Beijing and does not see it as the security partner, as well as South Korean government continues to see the US as the key guarantor of its security.
Economics as the means of security provision
East Asia is probably the most dynamically developing region in terms of economy and trade in the world. In 2012 intra-Asia trade amounted 25% of Asia’s total 6 $ trillion annual exports. Trade with China constitutes 37% of ASEAN states total trade. Economic dynamics changed in the region rapidly during the last 20 years.
After the II World War economics of East Asia was usually explained by the flying goose model, where the role of goose was played by Japan. Japan’s rapid economic development and technological superiority made it a strong leader in the region and it was seen as the driver of the development which was supposed to be leading all other countries in the region. However, the model soon changed. Also technologically still more advanced then its neighbors Japan is now heavily dependent on supplies from China. Moreover, the trade balance is no longer in Japan’s favor. Rapidly growing regional economic system (during 1991-2001 interregional trade increased on 304%) is becoming more and more Sino centric. In 1990s US, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korean producers shifted their plants to China in the search of the cheep labor as the result of which China dramatically increased production and exports of goods. China creates regional demand and absorbs intermediate products produced in the region (H.Ohashi, 2005).
This tremendous shift is efficiently used by China in pushing forward its political and security objectives. It is clearly seen in the relations with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Taiwan export dependence on the mainland is growing. In 2003 China became the largest trade partner for Taipei putting US on the second place. South Korea is the fifth largest foreign investor in China (J. H. Chung, 2005).
China and South Korea formally normalized relations in 1992. Seoul was seeking for the cheap labor and profitable overseas makers, which coincided with the shift on the policies of China and the desire to open up. Especially after Tiananmen China needed to deepen regional cooperation to mediate the effect of sanctions imposed by western leaders (H.Ohashi, 2005).
However, recently Japan started active diversification of import and export to decrease its dependency on China. Tokyo is gradually increases export to other then China ASEAN countries. Remembering the lesson of trade war Tokyo already reduced import of raw materials from China to 50%, buying from India, Brasil and countries of ASEAN (J.Holslag, 2014).
Thus, although China efficiently uses economic ties to create the sphere of influence in the region, this strategy can be balanced by the efforts of Japan.
Developments described above demonstrate the general trend of growing Chinese influence on the security landscape in the region. Thanks to the growing economic interdependence Beijing managed to involve countries which were formerly associated with the US into cooperation. Economic interests are forming the base for political and security dialog between China and South Korea and Taiwan, as well as economics put constraints on the ability of Japan to pursue independent agenda in the region. Too strict and nonnegotiable stance taken by the US in the number of conflicts in the region only pushed its former allies for closer relations with Beijing.
China also managed to create the situation in the multilateral institutions, when Beijing has power to block particular decisions, or just make some questions nonnegotiable. China succeeds in keeping multilateral institutions from full formalization by blocking the ideas of giving organizations like ASEAN authority for issuing binging for members decisions.
Although China refrains from use of military force, it is clear that nobody from regional players can negotiate on any of issues lying within the realm of Chinese core interests such as territorial affiliation of islands in the South China Sea, or status of Taiwan.
However, China’s aggressive policies, in particular towards disputed territories, force other countries in the region unite to counteract. Currently Japan and the US are playing leading role in supporting coalitions of smaller countries united by dissatisfaction with Chinese policies. Such dynamics gives grounds for the conclusion that despite growing economic potential and military capabilities, China is not going to become hegemonic power in East Asia in near future.
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