Author: Hugh White, ANU
Coming to terms with the Asian century means coming to terms with the biggest change in the global distribution of wealth and power since the Industrial Revolution. This change is driving nothing less than a revolution in the Asian regional order.
For the West, it means having much less power over how that order is conceived and maintained. For Asian countries it means that for the next few decades by far the most important new power will be China, as its economy not just overtakes America’s but grows to perhaps twice the size. For Asian countries, it also means learning again to live with powerful neighbours without the comforting intermediation of preponderant Western power. For Australia, it means both of these things. No wonder it is not proving easy.
Eventually, if the current trend of rising per-capita productivity is sustained, a number of populous Asian countries will acquire the wealth and power to shape and shake the regional order in ways which until now only Japan has been able to pretend. These countries will include India and Indonesia but especially China, and coming to terms with the Asian century will mean coming to terms with what this means for China’s ability to reshape the Asian order to serve its interests.
The first question, then, is: what does China want? There are two common views about this. The first is that China wants very little — only to be a bigger and more responsible supporter of the US-led status quo. Those who take this view say that China is the main beneficiary of the stable order created by American primacy, and its rulers cannot afford to disturb it. Certainly, China wants stability, but this argument assumes that China thinks that the only possible foundation for stability is US leadership. Beijing does not see it that way. The Chinese believe Asia could be just as stable and peaceful under its own leadership. The argument that the Chinese want very little also assumes that the Chinese have no ambitions other than to be rich. But it seems clear the Chinese also want the status and respect they feel is becoming of a unique and exceptional civilisation, and will be willing to run risks to get it. In this way, they are very much like America.
The second view of China’s ambitions is that they are far-reaching. The examples of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Stalinist Russia lead some to assume that any rising power must inevitably aim to overturn every aspect of the pre-existing order — territorial, economic, political, ideological, even moral. Many people fear that China too has these ambitions. But this fear underestimates China’s immense stake in many aspects of the current order of which it has been by far the biggest beneficiary. In this way, it is very unlike the disruptive rising powers of the 20th century — there is no evidence that China has territorial ambitions, notwithstanding its assertiveness in the South China Sea. It has no political or ideological agendas, and no reason to change the economic order. In fact, China seems to want to change very little about the global or regional order except its own role in it, and even there its leadership ambitions seem primarily limited to Asia.
So perhaps the rest of the world could learn to live with Chinese leadership if things otherwise remained unchanged, but this is still a potentially risky and unsettling prospect. It is risky because once in charge China’s ambitions might grow, and it could start acting more like the rising powers of the last century. It is unsettling because leadership is so deeply tied up with identity, especially for the leaders themselves. We can be sure that the Chinese will be deadly serious about asserting their leadership in Asia, and America will be equally serious about defending theirs.
Coming to terms with China’s and the United States’ competing ambitions requires understanding how much power each country will have. China is becoming immensely powerful, but America will remain very strong too. China will also be surrounded by other very strong states, including Japan, Russia, India and perhaps Indonesia. Even on the most bullish projections, China will not be able to dominate Asia against all these surrounding powers. But equally, even if America recovers strongly from its current economic and fiscal problems it will not be able to dominate Asia in the face of Chinese opposition. So the Asian century will not belong to any one country. It will be a time either of systemic rivalry and frequent conflict or of carefully cultivated compromise and cooperation between the region’s major powers.
And this means, finally, that coming to terms with the Asian century means coming to terms with the risks it presents and the options available to avoid them. We have to acknowledge China’s power and ambitions, but without simply surrendering to them. Whether we can avoid escalating strategic rivalry and, at the same time, avoid Chinese hegemony depends on our ability to simultaneously accommodate China’s ambitions and rein them in. It is necessary to decide how hard to resist China, how much to concede, and how to draw and enforce the limits to these concessions. We need to understand the consequences of getting any of this wrong. Above all, we need to quickly grasp just how different the Asian century is going to be.
Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.