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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