US as first among equals not good enough for China

Author: Hugh White, ANU

What is America’s ultimate aim in Asia today? Robert Manning’s and James Przystup’s insightful response to my comments about this question gets to the heart of the issue, in ways that help to illuminate the real choice America now faces in its relationship with China and its role in Asia.

That choice today is quite stark: which does America want more, primacy or peace? Because the way things are moving in Asia today, it cannot have both.

This is what’s new. For four decades there has been no need to choose between primacy and peace, because US primacy has itself been the foundation of peace and security in Asia. But this has only been true because American primacy has been uncontested by other major powers in Asia. That has been the case ever since Nixon met Mao in 1972, and that is why Asia’s past 40 years of remarkable peace and stability have been, as Robert and James say, underwritten by US power.

Now that is changing, because China is challenging US primacy as the foundation of the Asian order. We might regret this — I certainly do — but we can hardly be surprised by it. It is the natural consequence of a profound shift in the distribution of power. And it means that, from here on, American efforts to perpetuate primacy in the face of China’s challenge will create not peace and stability but escalating rivalry and a growing risk of conflict.

So if, as Robert and James say, America’s ultimate aim is to preserve peace and stability, it should now be willing to forgo primacy and seek a new role in Asia which is more acceptable to China and thus offers better hopes for regional order. Which of these options America chooses will tell us what its real priories now are. Has primacy become an end in itself, or is it still a means to a higher goal? If Robert and James are right, America should be willing to step back from primacy.

I think Robert and James would argue that this is exactly what is happening. They suggest America now sees itself simply as a primus inter pares instead of an outright leader in Asia. The question of course is whether this is enough. That phrase, ‘primus inter pares’, is very suggestive, and what it suggests is clear primacy decently veiled by a pretence of parity. It was after all first used to describe the rule of the Caesars in the Roman Empire. The emphasis is very much on the primus, in other words. My hunch is that China will not settle for this. They will probably not settle for anything less than a position of equality with America in the Asian order: pares without the primus.

If the United States and China will both settle for something like this — a new regional order based on parity — the chances of peace and stability in Asia are quite good. If they won’t, then the future looks pretty grim. Of course there is a huge question about whether China would agree, but there remains an equally big question about America’s willingness to accept parity with China. And so far, I would argue, America has given no clear sign that it is willing to share power in Asia with China.

The evidence suggests the contrary: that the aim of US policy is to use all the elements of American power to preserve the old order based on US primacy, even if that leads to escalating strategic rivalry with China which undermines regional peace and stability. And that is why I think US policy today can fairly be called ‘containment’. If that’s wrong — if America really is willing, under the right conditions, to share power with China — then someone very senior in Washington needs to say so, loud and clear.

Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University.

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  • mancheri

    America’s ultimate aim is to preserve peace and stability, it should now be willing to forgo primacy. Wrong assumption Sir,The moment US concedes its presence from Asia, the more unstable Asia would be. No country in Indo-Pacific trusts China..let alone approve its primacy except the (M-M) Mulla-Military state of Pakistan.

    • Mancheri, there is a difference between primacy and presence.
      White’s article doesn’t say the US should concede its presence in Asia but talks about the primacy issue.
      While it may be true that America’s ultimate aim is to preserve peace and stability in many cases, that is not necessarily so in all cases. Certainly its invasion of Iraq is a good example of this. Peace and stability have not been achieved. On the contrary, many civilian lives have been lost and Iraq as a country is almost destroyed.
      Further, you claim that no country in Indo-Pacific trusts China. That is clearly and plainly wrong.

    • Matt

      Agreed. The problem with Mr. White’s assumption is that it’s based on false premises. China in no way constitutes a legitimate threat to even Japan’s Navy, let alone the U.S.’s. To be among equals implies being equal. We’re 2-3 decades from this at a minimum, and a lot can change in 20-30 years. Don’t believe me, ask the USSR.

  • Chien

    It is not China, but the US that is having a problem. Like in school yard, the bullied kid of yore grew stronger, so the bully must rethink. China is just doing its thing, not challenging the US per se, it is the US making all the moves.

    China is only flexing it’s new found muscles, not looking for a fight, but US cannot accept a new order and wants to maintain or revert to the old status quo, which is impossible, because situation has changed.

  • Yes, I agree with Hugh White. USA should give up its primacy idea and deal with China as a equal partner of the current world. Thanks

    • Combine_Dave

      The problem here is there are a number of nations which benefit quite a good deal from American primacy in Asia (Australia being one of them).

      * Japan, under the direct protection of USA, has become aggressive again in the region. Pushing back against China and arming the Philippines to help “counter-balance” the region against China.

      * Philippines and Vietnam are very aggressive now (backed by USA and Japan) in countering China’s historical maritime claims

      * Taiwan (specifically the Taiwan green party) is heavily reliant on the protection of America to remain an independent nation in all but name.

      All of these nations above, have a vested interest in America not only retaining its primacy in Asia but also in ensuring that China does obtain greater power.

      Whether this is prevented by containment or future use of sanctions/limited military action is another question.