China’s choices and ours

Author: Hugh White, ANU

Although he’s confident that Asia’s present regional order and institutions will keep Asia peaceful and harmonious as China’s power grows, Amitav Acharya does acknowledge that adjustments will be needed.

The question, then, is what kind of adjustments are required? I have argued that the key change needed to preserve Asia’s peace and stability over the next few decades is a shift from an order based on US primacy to one that is based on a relationship of equality between the region’s great powers.

The reason is simple: as its power grows, China will no longer be satisfied with a regional order based on what China sees as its political and strategic subordination to the US. That dissatisfaction will be expressed — is already being expressed — by a determined attempt to change the order which is already undermining regional stability.

On the other hand, none of the other countries in Asia will be satisfied with a regional order based on Chinese primacy. So the only order that will offer stability is one in which both the US and China agree to deal with one another as equals. This will not be easy to achieve. Both Beijing and Washington will have to make big compromises. But the incentives are strong for both sides because such an order is essential to maintain interdependence and economic growth for everyone, and to keep Asia peaceful.

However, it is not quite as simple as that, because the US and China are not the only great powers in Asia. I believe Japan and India must also both be satisfied if the Asian order is to be stable and peaceful, because they too are, or soon will be, strong enough to disrupt the order if they are not satisfied with it. That is what makes the great powers. So any US–China agreement will need to be extended to cover Japan and India too.

I do not think it matters much what we call that kind of four-way deal, but I have called it a Concert of Asia because it does have some important things in common with the order that avoided general war in Europe for a century after Waterloo. One of the parallels is in the diversity of the regimes that made up the European Concert. There was no ‘ideological convergence’, for example, between Tsarist Russia and Victorian England, but they shared the essential conviction that neither would win by trying to dominate the system, and all would lose. That is the only thing the members of this kind of arrangement must share.

It is true, as Amitav says, that a Concert system like this in Asia — or whatever we call it — would tend to prevent the rest of us pressing for political change inside China, just as the European Concert prevented European powers intervening in one another’s affairs. They saw that as the price of peace which they were willing to pay.

This is a central issue for us in Asia today. We cannot expect China to be satisfied with any regional order which contests the fundamental legitimacy of the Chinese government, and which allows the rest of us to intervene in China’s internal affairs in ways that China is not allowed to intervene in ours. And we cannot expect to live in peace unless China is satisfied with the regional order. So we can have a stable order in Asia or we can try to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party, but we cannot have both. We have to make a choice.

It is also true, as Amitav says, that an Asian concert, like the European one, would marginalise middle and smaller powers. He would prefer that the existing, ASEAN-centric suite of regional institutions play the leading role, so the rest of us do not get left out. The question is whether those institutions have any capacity to shape the relations between Asia’s great powers. I see no evidence that they do. Certainly they never have before, because their entire history has been played out during the long era of uncontested US primacy in which great-power relations have remained settled.

It is perhaps possible that they might provide a forum in which the great powers could reach an agreement about their new relationships, but I doubt it. The tougher the bargaining, the fewer people you want in the room, and building a new order in Asia will require very tough bargaining indeed. This deal, if it is done at all, will be done between the great powers alone.

So we small and middle powers — including Australia — have another choice to make. Do we want the great powers to make an agreement while we are not in the room, or would we rather they not to make an agreement? The old joke says that the ants get squashed whether the elephants fight or make love, but they get squashed much flatter when the elephants fight.

Asia’s remarkable economic interdependence is central to all this, but we must be careful to understand exactly what role it plays. The fact that we all depend on one another so much for our prosperity gives us all immense incentives to make whatever compromises and sacrifices are needed to keep the region stable and harmonious. But it does not remove the need to make those compromises. Interdependence requires harmony, but it does not guarantee it. We can only preserve interdependence and economic growth if we are all willing to make the compromises needed to preserve harmony, and the new circumstances in Asia mean we need to make new compromises.

I can see lots of things wrong with the model of Asia’s future order that I call a Concert. But I cannot see that any other model of Asia’s future offers a better chance to keep the peace, and I see the consequences of failing to do so are very grave indeed. But let’s not debate the name. Let’s focus on the essentials. Do we agree that a stable order in Asia requires that the US and China should treat one another as equals as China’s power grows to approach America’s? If so, how do we help to bring that about?

Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University, and Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He is also an East Asia Forum Fellow for 2012.

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