Why war in Asia remains thinkable

Author: Hugh White

Changes in the structure of power in Asia and the Pacific require the construction of a new Concert of Asian powers and that however difficult to set up, it has the best prospect of ensuring Asian security. Union, a la Europe is remote; American primacy is unlikely to remain; a balance of power system is unstable; but shared leadership in a concert among America and the Asian powers provides an alternative.

But it is a long-shot. To see just how hard it would be to build a concert of Asia in the Asian century, it helps to look at what the US, China and Japan would each have to accept to do it. America would have to accept loss of primacy. It would have to be prepared to treat China as an equal, and that means treating it as much more than a ‘responsible stakeholder’. It would need to accept not just the legitimacy of China’s political system, but the legitimacy of its international interests even where these differed from America’s, even on core issues like Iran. It would need to accept clear limits to US military preponderance as China built forces which would limit American military options, and sustained a robust nuclear deterrent against the US. All this seems very onerous, but the alternative is also tough: to accept China as a strategic adversary, in a competition which the US could no doubt win, but at great cost to itself, because China is not the Soviet Union. And the concert model is not that bad for America: it remains an indispensable powering Asia, staying engaged to balance but not to dominate. This will give it huge influence, and help keep America strong by sustaining Asia’s growth. And only America can do it.

Finally, building a concert would be tough for Japan. It would have to relinquish something of its close relationship with the US, and accept that the US and China would in turn move closer together so that the triangular relationship was more equilateral. It would have to accept and exercise responsibly the role of a major power in its own right. And it would have to spend more on defence. But for it too the alternatives are not attractive. Japan today is in a tough position. It is anxious about China’s rise, and wary of the possibility of closer US-China cooperation. It fears that the US will sell out Japan’s interests in pursuit of a closer relationship with China. So it seeks security in a level of US-China animosity. In the long ter, however, this is untenable, because the US and China are Japan’s two biggest trading partners, and a stable relationship between them is essential to Japan’s future. But moving beyond the familiar patterns of recent decades will be very hard for Japan.

When we see how much each of the three major powers in Northeast Asia will need to move to build a a stable order in which war remains unthinkable, it is easy to become a little pessimistic that they can do it. Unfortunately the most likely outlook is that we will move towards balance of power structure, in which war is more thinkable, economic integration goes into reverse, growth slows and cooperation on urgent issues like the environment becomes much harder. We all end up poorer and less secure. So it seems worth taking some decisive steps in the other direction. What might they be?’

(read my whole piece here)