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. 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 recognizing 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.