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Can Asia break free of great-power dynamics?

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In Brief

Asia’s recent decades of economic growth have depended, among other things, on a remarkable period of regional peace and stability. The region will only keep growing if that can be sustained. We cannot take this for granted.


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The peace we have known has resulted from an unusual situation that emerged in the early 1970s, when China decided to follow Japan in accepting the United States as the primary strategic power in Asia. That has meant that US primacy has been uncontested by any major regional power in Asia, eliminating major-power rivalry as a source of tension and conflict.

But US primacy in Asia is now contested again. China no longer accepts American leadership as the foundation of the regional strategic order and instead seeks a ‘new model of great power relations’. This probably means it wants to take America’s place as Asia’s primary power, and its new strategic weight means we have to take this seriously. Few, if any, in Asia want China to get what it wants. US leadership has served the region well and no one wants to live under China’s shadow.

But wishes are no substitute for good policy. We delude ourselves if we imagine that Asia could be transformed economically by the biggest shift in the distribution of wealth in history without also being transformed politically and strategically. It would have been truly remarkable if China had not sought a bigger regional role as its power has grown, as every rising power in history has done before it.

So rather than just wishing that the old order might last for ever, Asia’s leaders have to start thinking about how the inevitable transformation of the regional order can be managed peacefully. Throughout the transformation, regional leaders should strive to preserve as many of the positive features of the old order as possible.

So far they have failed to do that. The problem starts in Washington, where US policymakers and analysts have remained in denial about the seriousness of China’s challenge. They underestimate China’s power and resolve, which leads them to think that low-cost low-risk gestures, like those promoted under President Obama’s ‘pivot’, can persuade Beijing to back off. Policymakers still assume that China would not risk the economic costs or military risks of a confrontation with the United States, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Recent events in the South China Sea, for example, suggest that Washington is more risk-averse than Beijing.

And this year’s strange presidential primaries suggest that America’s resolve is unlikely to stiffen after November. Donald Trump’s mindless braggadocio is as sure a sign of the American electorate’s dwindling commitment to sustain the costs of global leadership as Bernie Sanders’ refusal even to discuss foreign policy.

All this is compounded by what seems like excessive confidence on the other side of the Pacific. For Beijing it has become too easy to reach an assumption opposite to Washington’s — that it will be the US that backs off in the face of modest Chinese pressure and not the other way round. China’s actions over maritime disputes in the Spratly Islands and elsewhere seem plainly intended to do just this. They are creating situations that test America’s willingness to risk a military confrontation with China on behalf of its allies. Beijing hopes and expects that the US will fail — and so far they have been proved mostly right.

This creates a very dangerous situation. Of course, neither side wants confrontation, let alone war. But each side expects to be able to achieve its aims without confrontation because it assumes the other will back down. And we should be under no illusion about the weight of the stakes for both countries. The maritime issues in dispute are not the cause of US–China rivalry any more than the status of Serbs in the Austro–Hungarian Empire was the cause of the First World War.

Their contest is driven by mutually incompatible visions of the future Asian order and their roles in it. For both of them, this goes to central questions of national identity and destiny. These are just the kinds of issues that great powers do go to war over, and the mutual underestimation of each other’s resolve is how such wars start when neither wants nor expects them to.

The risks may well grow in future if Beijing becomes impatient with Taiwan’s new government. Tensions across the Strait, which eased under President Ma, would then start to rise again, adding another, even more emotive focus for US–China rivalry.

None of this is to say that confrontation or conflict is inevitable. But it is to say that the risks are very real and the trends are negative. Turning those trends around by finding a way to deescalate the rivalry is essential for setting the conditions for peace, stability and growth in Asia over coming decades.

None of us can afford to leave this to Washington and Beijing, because we simply cannot assume they will get it right. Others with an interest in Asia’s future — and that means not just Asians but everyone else as well — ought to ask what influence can be brought to bear to help manage the transition now underway in Asia much better than it has been so far.

That means recognising and acknowledging the existence and scale of the risks of escalating rivalry — to break through the complacency that envelopes both Washington and Beijing. It requires us to accept that the old order in Asia is no longer sustainable: we will have a new regional order whether we like it or not. We must therefore think more creatively about what that order might look like. It is too easy to assume that the only alternative to US primacy in Asia is Chinese primacy, and both Washington and Beijing have reasons of their own to encourage that assumption.

But of course there are many other possible foundations for a new Asian order, which would serve the interests of all of us, including the United States and China, much better than either a protracted struggle for regional primacy between the world’s two strongest states or a passive acceptance of Chinese hegemony. Our challenge is to explore these alternatives and how they might best be brought about. It is an extraordinarily difficult task, but the stakes could not be higher.

Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Stuck in the middle?’.

9 responses to “Can Asia break free of great-power dynamics?”

  1. While I agree that a new order is already coming in E Asia, I am not sure that either the Chinese or the Americans are as complacent about it as Prof White opines. Both are jockeying for position with each other as well as with most of the other nations in the region.

    Perhaps it was space limitations which prevented a more elaborate description of what the other, interested nations can or should do about this transition taking place. I’d like to read more about what Prof White thinks other countries can do in a more proactive vein to at least influence if not direct how these circumstances evolve in the coming years. Please keep writing on this topic.

  2. Hugh White says, in his thoughtful article: “We delude ourselves if we imagine that Asia could be transformed economically by the biggest shift in the distribution of wealth in history without also being transformed politically and strategically”.

    At the same time, however, we delude ourselves if we think the traditional west is host to the perfect political and strategic model for high incomes, wealth distribution, security and stability. The rise and rise of Donald Trump’s popularity is more than ‘mindless braggadocio’ and more than Americans losing interest in global leadership. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the ‘democratic’ political process and the quality of candidates its producing. And that’s not confined to the US. China has thrown up a new economic model that’s worked quite well for itself and Asia with widespread global benefits. Why not a new political model aligned with their economic model?

  3. Professor White has once again shown up the hollowness of assumptions popular in many establishments that China’s ambition to regain its regional (if not global) eminence, and its will and capacity to pursue this goal, can simply be ‘managed’ without much effort, cost-effectively ‘met’ with military threats, or even wished away. The logic of Prof. White’s arguments is reinforced by a cursory study of the evolution of the Westphalian system and its core. The core was successively dominated, occasionally designed, by Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, French, British and more recently, American, efforts to ‘lead’. While each primate in its turn elucidated the planetary beneficence of its dominance, those subjected to this often-unsolicited munificence may have begged to differ. While each considered its reign immutable, all eventually gave way to successors. That historical reality may not be arrested with Canute-like ‘rebalances’.

  4. “The maritime issues in dispute are not the cause of US–China rivalry any more than the status of Serbs in the Austro–Hungarian Empire was the cause of the First World War.”

    This is true. The real issue is that the United States is already insolvent under GAAP and it has only a military option left to confront a rising China, and this option is lethal, as a war between the two giants could go nuclear from the start, sparing no nation.

    The US National Debt is US$19 trillion and by the time Obama leaves office in Jan 2017, the US National Debt will cross the Rubicon to over US$20 trillion.

    Also the Pentagon cannot account for another missing US$8.5 trillion, in the books.

    And according to Prof Lawrence Kotlikoff of Boston University, the US unfunded debt, covering Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid was US$222 trillion in 2014.

    On top of all that economic millstones, the student loan debacle now totals US$17 trillion and the sub-prime car loan another US$1 trillion.

    The United States is on a slippery slope to bankruptcy, a la Argentina.

    And Japan is in a deleterious deflationary spiral, despite a few Abenomic QEs of biblical proportions. This was what Finance Minister Aso said might happen to break that ominous trend:

    “There are lots of earnings at hand on the part of the corporate in Japan. It should be used for wage hike or dividend payment or the capital investment, but they are not doing that. They are just holding onto their cash and deposits. Reserved earnings have kept going up. A similar situation had occurred in the US in the 1930’s.”

    “What solved the question? War! Because World War II had occurred during the 1940’s and that became the solution for the United States. So, let’s look at the entrepreneurs in Japan. They are stuck with the deflationary mindset. They have to switch their mindset and should start making capital investments. We are looking for the trigger. That is the utmost concern.”

    If Australia is being manipulated by Uncle Sam to focus its military expenditures to ensure Freedom Of Navigation in the South China Sea it is wasting valuable resources, as 26% of Australia’s world trade today go though the South China Sea, with no problems at all, as most of that trade ends up in Chinese ports.

    China is launching OBOR and is pivoting to the West via the Eurasia land mass to Russia, Germany and the EU and via the Maritime Silk road linking China to Asean, India, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, East Africa, Egypt, Greece and the EU.

    New iron, nickel and copper mines, oil and gas resources will be discovered in the Eurasian land mass and Australia risks losing its markets in China, when push turns to shove.

    Can Australia survive without a Chinese market, which is 26% of its total global trade? I doubt it.

    The United States has pivoted to the Asia Pacific but the Pacific Ocean is dying due to 300 tons of coolant water, contaminated with radioactive cesium137 and strontium90, being discharged from Fukushima into it every day. destroying marine life up to the West coast of North America.

    Uncle Sam is welcome to have the Pacific Ocean all to himself.

  5. Huge White has stated succinctly the problem, but has otherwise sat on the fence. What is really frustrating is what is unsaid. It would have been nice to have seen Hugh outline the alternatives to a US-China showdown or an Asia geo-political world framed in US-China terms, as is commonly done.

  6. The article is rational. All empires try to keep a raising power in check. At the crux of the transition will be how each side assess their strengths and opportunities to design an appropriate strategy and timeline. Worrisome to a number of folks is the US’s marginalization of diplomacy. Over the last two decades, the State Dept has been effectively supplanted by the Pentagon. US negotiation has been reduced to hubris and sword rattling, which might work on small nations in the Middle East, but will not work with China anymore then it works with Russia. China of the 1970’s was pliable and willing to take western hubris as it built itself up for the future. Now we have a new China with confidence to advance it’s interests.
    The US is not helping by challenging China in the SCS and trying to encircle it with military bases. All this will lead to is a lot more tension in the next decade between these two powers. It becomes a stare down contest and the smaller nations in Asia will not escape the impact regardless of who does the pushing.

  7. Given that it is Hillary Clinton who seems likely to win the presidency, what Trump and Sanders may reveal of the electorate’s allegedly dwindling commitment to sustain global leadership probably doesn’t matter. After all, how will the electorate get the chance to affect foreign/defence policy after the election? Will even a Republican-dominated Congress faithfully represent the electorate’s misgivings or doubts about global leadership?

    Hillary Clinton appears to belong to the class of hawkish female leaders of whom Margaret Thatcher has been the most striking example. The lady whom we can supposedly trust to take that 3am emergency call is surely bound to ‘stiffen’ America’s resolve. The trouble will be her terrible judgement, which has been shown at its worst in the Middle East and North Africa.

    Having supported the invasion of Iraq, Hillary later became the principal advocate of America’s disastrous intervention in Libya. She urged Libyans to capture Gaddafi or kill him, setting a new low standard for a Secretary of State. Then she gloated over his murder with her witty paraphrase of Julius Caesar’s “I came, I saw, I conquered”. Ms Clinton thereby went far beyond Thatcher’s defence of the sinking of the Belgrano.

    It is very unlikely that Hillary will be ‘in denial about the seriousness of China’s challenge’. One just hopes she’s acquired some wisdom and good sense since last holding high office.

  8. Some comments point out some unsaid issues, including what a new Asia order would look like and how to bring that peacefully.

    While I am an economist as opposed to international strategist, I would venture a hypothesis that the best scenario for a new Asia order to appear peacefully would be for China to work not only for its own interests but also for the interests of all Asian countries, so that Asia is truly for all Asians as a whole, irrespective for China to confront the US or not.

    The underlying assumption is that Asians will benefit from a new Asia order.

    If you don’t look after your neighbours, they will not support you in your endeavours.

    I think that will need China to make some hard decisions and choices, including to make some compromises and perhaps sacrifices in the process for it to rise as a true and powerful leader in Asia. America will naturally fade from Asia or its assumed uncontested leadership in Asia will be diluted, in that process.

    It will be wise for China if it can do that. I think there will be enough wise people in China for it to realise that is the best option forward.

  9. One possible alternative order for Asian countries is an order of neutrality similar to the that of Switzerland. Each of the countries in this region can declare their neutrality that can be underwritten by major powers like the United States, Russia and China. This Asian Zone of Peace, Prosperity and Neutrality can be initiated individually by Asian countries in regional organisations like ASEAN, ANZUS, SEATO, The Commonwealth Heads of Government etc.

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