Keeping Asia peaceful and prosperous

Author: Hugh White, ANU

Thanks again to Robert and James for raising such key issues in their riposte to my second post in this exchange. I think there are five questions here.

Chinese navy sailors stand on the guided-missile destroyer, Qingdao, before departure for a naval drill at a military port in Qingdao in east China. (Photo: AAP)

First, there is the question of what China wants, on the one hand, and what it will settle for, on the other. I agree completely with Robert and James that China’s conduct these days does not suggest it wants parity with the United States in Asia: it suggests that China does indeed, as they say, want some kind of ‘21st century neo-tributary system or version of an Asian Monroe Doctrine’. And I agree that this is unlikely to lead to peace and stability. That is why I do not argue that America should give China what it wants. On the contrary, I argue in The China Choice and elsewhere that the established order must avoid conceding primacy in Asia to China. But that must also, if possible, be done in a way that avoids escalating strategic rivalry with China.

To do that, the United States would not need to concede to China all that it wants, but it should think very hard about conceding enough to satisfy China — if it can be satisfied with an outcome that leaves everyone’s central interest in a stable rules-based order intact. My hunch is that China would not settle for anything less than power-sharing parity with the United States, but it might settle for that. Moreover I think power-sharing parity could provide a basis for the stable peaceful order in Asia that everyone wants — and certainly a better basis than the escalating rivalry that seems certain to follow American refusal to make any substantive concessions to China.

Second, there is the question of whether this is what America is doing. Robert and James point to US participation in global regional multilateral institutions to show that America is in fact adapting its posture in Asia to what they call ‘the diffusion of power’. But dealing with China as one of a crowd of rising players fails to take account of its unique position in the new distribution of power. China is not one of the crowd, and America cannot build a stable long-term relationship with China by treating it as if it was. And Robert and James still argue that America should ‘see itself as a steward of the global and regional order’. No sign there of any willingness to substantively revise America’s role in Asia to take account of China’s growing power. On the contrary, they seem still to propose that America should perpetuate primacy in Asia regardless of what China might want.

Third, there is the question with which this exchange began, about whether US policy toward China can be called ‘containment’. Robert and James respond to my earlier arguments that it can by recalling America’s role over the past three decades in bringing China into the global and regional community. They say that this was the opposite of containment, and of course they are right. But things are different now. Until a few years ago America welcomed China’s increasing engagement with the wider Asian community because China did not challenge America’s leadership of Asia. Now China does challenge US leadership, and America is pushing back, trying to preserve its leadership by limiting the growth of China’s power and influence. How is that not containment?

Of course that does not make it a bad policy. After all, containment worked against the Soviets. But can it work against China? This brings us to the fourth question: the scale of China’s power. Robert and James seem not to see how strong China is now, and how strong it is likely to become. China is already richer relative to the United States than any country has ever been since America became a world power — even the Soviet Union. On the measure most relevant to strategy — purchasing power parity — China’s economy is already very close to overtaking America’s, and it seems likely that it will do so, and continue to draw further ahead in the years to come. This means America has never encountered a country as wealthy, and therefore as powerful, as China will be over coming decades. And while America’s overall military capabilities remain superior, the costs and risks of conflict with China have increased very sharply in recent years, to the point that they may well exceed America’s real interests in Asia. We have only to contemplate the scenarios that could so easily arise around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute to see this. So it would be unwise to assume that America’s real interests in preserving primacy justify the costs of containing China’s challenge.

And finally, what about the rest of us in Asia? Robert and James are right to draw attention to our interests in all this. And they are right to say that the Asia Pacific does not like the idea of living under China’s shadow. That is why we want America to stay engaged in Asia as a major strategic power. But equally we do not want to live with the consequences of escalating US–China rivalry, given the magnitude of China’s growing power. The rest of us in Asia want America to stay engaged in Asia on a basis that China is willing to accept. That means that, rather than try to perpetuate primacy, America must find a way to share power in Asia with China, if China can be brought to agree. We in the Western Pacific are in no doubt that we would forgo US primacy in Asia if that is the best way to keep Asia peaceful and prosperous. The question still remains whether Americans agree with us.

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


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  • Richard Rosecrance

    Hugh, as always you pose the correct questions and give very interesting and well-thought out answers to them. But I wonder if there is not one option that you have missed in claiming that the two alternatives are (1)reconciliation/settlement with China and (2) opposition/containment of China. There is a third and much more attractive alternative which is to build an “overbalance” of power which will attract China. This was the option missed in 1914 for Britain and Germany only had an approximate balance vis a vis one another and that did not deter either side. Buttressed by nuclear weapons, a balance of power briefly worked after 1945, but the Cold War did not come to an end until the West and the United States had attained a favorable overbalanace as compared to Russia. This overbalance was both economic and military. Today, it is obvious that the United States alone cannot obtain a favorable overbalance, but united with Europe (making well nigh one half of world GDP) it can achieve an overbalance in lateral, if not in vertical terms.This is what Bismarck did with his overwhelming 4 v 1 coalition against France, a policy given up when Kaiser Wilhelm II entered power. It is worth underscoring that the US and Europe contain virtually all the economies of scale industries in the world. If Japan (and possibly) Korea are added, the structure is stronger still. Bear in mind that an overpowering economic coalition attracts (as EU has done in Europe) while going for weapons alone may have the opposite effect. The United States has and will have for many years a surplus of military power–this however, will not drawn in China. It is the consolidation of Western economic power that will make the difference and attract China, making it unnecessary to oppose Beijing.

    • Faizullah Khilji

      1. Mr Rosecrance writes:

      “There is a third and much more attractive alternative which is to build an “overbalance” of power which will attract China.” And, “It is the consolidation of Western economic power that will make the difference and attract China, making it unnecessary to oppose Beijing.”

      2. Some would argue that this is indeed what TTIP and TTP are about.

    • Hugh White

      Many thanks Richard for such a though-provoking comment. I wish you were right about there being a third alternative, but I’m not so sure. I take it that the one you have in mind – what you call ‘overbalancing’ [more specifically economic overbalancing] – works like this. China will find itself facing a choice between dropping its challenge to the US-led political and strategic order or being locked out of the US-led global economy, and will choose the former, thereby removing the need for America either to contest or to accommodate China’s challenge.

      I agree with your prediction that this is how China would respond if it faced this choice, because this is precisely what China has done for forty years until very recently. They faced this choice in 1972, and from then until about 2008 they consistently did as you predict: they accepted US primacy in Asia in return for the access to the global economy on which its economic growth has depended.

      But then about 2008 Beijing changed its mind and started overtly to challenge US primacy. You think there is good reason to expect it to change its mind back again.
      To see how likely that is we need to understand what made China change its mind in the first place. Most likely, Beijing has concluded that it no longer faces the same choice it did in 1972, because it now believes it is so vital to the global economy that the rest of us no longer have the option of locking China out – or at least the costs to us of doing so are so much higher as to make it almost unthinkable. So they think they can now challenge US primacy without being locked out of the global economy.

      I fear they are right. As things stand today, is the US willing to pay the economic costs to themselves of putting enough economic pressure on China to compel it to abandon its challenge to US primacy? Is Europe? Back in 1972 the costs were trivial. Now they are unimaginable. China thinks that we’d rather pay the strategic and political cost of accommodating its ambitions than the economic cost of trying to ‘overbalance’ it. The evidence is on their side…

      And there is no reason to believe this will change in our favour in future. Indeed it will get worse. It is very likely that China, even as it slows, will continue to grow faster than America, Europe or Japan, so its share global GDP will grow relative to that of your overbalancing coalition. That’s the difference between China and the Soviet Union.

      The military overbalance is another matter. Suffice to say here that I think there too the Chinese calculate that the US will see the costs of rivalry as higher than the costs of accommodation. That’s a much bigger argument, but it is not obvious that they are wrong.


  • Faizullah Khilji

    Mr White writes:

    “We in the Western Pacific are in no doubt that we would forgo US primacy in Asia if that is the best way to keep Asia peaceful and prosperous.”

    In my humble opinion, this “conclusion” in a piece titled “Keeping Asia peaceful and prosperous” sits oddly with the reported exchange between Mr Rudd and Ms Clinton, (both very obviously distinguished and responsible statepersons) reported in the press- a couple of links follow:

  • Patrick

    Very interesting debate and different point of views.

    One thing of which I am certain, China claims ownership of the entire SCS including Diaoyu/Senkaku and has resolve and will not to step back, unless forced by external powers to do so, or until there is a de facto submission of the neighboring states to its control.

    The thinking behind this is that you do not give up what you own and care for, as you wouldn’t trade your own wife even if someone claims her, and more so to lesser entities that should never dare to claim it.

    Whatever concession is made, what is given is lost and there won’t be gratitude, as it is the job of the traders to negotiate a good deal and all future deals will still be negotiated to the full extent.

    China’s position is very clear, and if no one takes credible action, it has the capacity and will to take over the whole area and control it, as it recently demonstrated with a showcase “training” blitz using amphibious ships, an hovercraft and fighter jets to reach and land on James shoal, at the southern tip of the SCS, some 80 kilometers from Malaysia, less than 200 kilometers from Brunei and 1,800 kilometers from the mainland coast.

    By controlling the whole sea and islets/shoals, China controls all trade routes, and it gains several military outposts just a few nautical miles from the borders of several nations, drastically increasing its influence and control over those nations.

    To come back to this article, how would you suggest to implement the suggested power-sharing strategy concerning ownership of Spratly, Paracels, Senkaku, various other shoals and islands? Who at last should control which piece of land and sea and who has the right to exploit the maritime resources and where?

    Call it counterbalancing, or call it containment, at last this doesn’t matter. It matters only who controls what.