Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 03:04 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 03:04 | SYDNEY

How to respond to a changing order?


Hugh White

5 July 2011 09:31

Stephan Fruehling's excellent post on Friday raises in a searching and helpful way many critical conceptual issues underlying our discussion of US primacy and the future of Asia. He covered the nature of primacy, the future of military preponderance, and relationship between them, as well as role of America’s allies in Asia, the analogies between Asia today and Cold War Europe and the negotiability of the status quo. 

Along the way he implies, but doesn't commit himself to, a view of how we should handle China's power which seems rather close to Nicholas Burns'. That's a lot to squeeze into 500 words, so it is perhaps a little churlish to say that I'd like to hear more. Nonetheless I would, because I'm still not clear what he thinks about the critical questions we all face. 

 But let's start with 'primacy'. Stephan says I use it in several different ways. I don't think I do. By 'primacy' I mean:

 a relationship between a country and an international system in which that country has a qualitatively different and greater role than any other country in the system in setting norms of behaviour, determining when those norms have been breached, and taking action to enforce them.

I think the US has sought primacy in Asia for almost a century, and has exercised it for forty years. Indeed since 1972 American primacy has been uncontested by Asia's other great powers, and this uncontested primacy has been the defining feature of the East Asian order.

There is a strong consensus in America today that it should aim to retain its primacy in Asia, but too little attention has been given to the obvious fact that its primacy will no longer be uncontested. That makes a big difference.

As we think about how America might retain primacy in the face of Chinese opposition, our attention naturally turns to America's military preponderance. I think Stephan suggests that US primacy in future will, or could be, sustained in the face of Chinese opposition by American military preponderance.

Actually America has only ever enjoyed preponderance at sea. Maritime predominance has been sufficient to underpin a primacy uncontested by other great powers, but it will not be sufficient against concerted opposition from China. Moreover sustaining maritime predominance itself may prove impossible: China's sea denial capabilities have already eroded the capacity for sea control on which it has hitherto relied. 

Stephan does not address this. He argues instead that US military preponderance in Asia will depend on its allies — 'it is a consequence of their choices'. Well, only up to a point: allied basing in Asia is perhaps necessary for American maritime preponderance, but certainly not sufficient. So I don't buy Stephan's (and Burns') conclusion, that America can and will sustain primacy in Asia based on military preponderance as long as it can sustain the support of its allies and partners.

Nor am I as confident as Stephan seems to be, that America's Asian allies will support America in maintaining primacy at any cost. He may be right that China's navy won't necessarily make Asians more deferential to China, but its economy might. One big difference between the Cold War in Europe and what's happening in Asia is that everyone in Asia has an economic stake in good relations with China that none of the Western Europeans had with the Soviet Union. Another is that it is not yet clear that Beijing's conception of Asia's future order is as incompatible with its neighbours' most vital interests as Moscow's was in Europe in the Cold War. 

Perhaps most fundamentally, I do not share what is I think Stephan's (and perhaps Burns') implicit assumption that a rerun of the Cold War is the best we can hope for in Asia over the next few decades, and not a bad outcome. My memories of the Cold War are not that rosy. And I'm not sure we'd win this one, because China is not the Soviet Union.

Finally, Stephan's critique of my views rests on an apparent assumption that any change to the US-primacy based status quo in Asia is unacceptable, and should be met with an implacable determination to fight. I'd be interested to know whether I have him right on this. Perhaps, like many others, he will say that the question is not as stark as that, because he expects the Chinese to back down in the face of American firmness. I'd be interested to know how confident he is of that, and why.

If this is what Stephan thinks, he's in good company. Many people believe that any change in the existing order in Asia in China's favour must be resisted by force. They draw the obvious lesson from the history of the 20th century — the lesson of 1938 — that it is a cardinal error not to go to war to defend what cannot be compromised in the existing order. And to save themselves the trouble of deciding what falls into that category, they assume that any change to the existing order is unacceptable.

If only life was that easy. As power shifts, orders change. Our generation is faced with one of the biggest power-shifts in history, and our responsibility is to manage the resulting changes in Asia's order as well as we can. The unthinking defence of the status quo is unlikely to achieve that.

It would prevent Chinese hegemony only at the price of very dangerous strategic rivalry or appalling conflict. That is why I think our most important task is to explore what kinds of new order in Asia could be constructed to avoid either of these disastrous outcomes. I'd be interested in Stephan's views on why he thinks no such order is possible, if that is indeed his view.

The last century teaches another, equally important, lesson — the lesson of 1914. It is surprisingly easy to be sucked into a conflict far worse than anyone images, and which no one can win, over issues which are, in retrospect, not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.

Photo by Flickr user Rego -