Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 01:29 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 01:29 | SYDNEY

The need for a line in the water

6 July 2011 13:37

Stephan Fruehling is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Program, ANU.

Hugh's post continues a fruitful debate about the Asian order, US policy and the rise of China. I think the future of Asia should not, and does not have to be, a new Cold War — but a demonstrated willingness to confront China, if necessary, is essential for future stability. 

Hugh's definition of 'primacy' is a good starting point to demonstrate how and why we differ. I think he elevates the past position of the US to an unrealistic level, thereby artificially accentuating the change to its position today. If US primacy existed since 1972, when has the US 'set norms of behaviour', 'determined that they have been breeched', and 'taken action to [successfully] enforce' them? 

Hugh correctly excludes continental Asia (with the wars in Cambodia, and China teaching Vietnam a lesson) from US influence. But neither in the South China Sea nor in North Korea has the US been very successful in enforcing norms of behaviour. And if US core interests were not challenged, was this really due to the US military preponderance, rather than the overall military, economic and institutional correlation of forces in the region?

This matters: if past stability was due to the regional balance as a whole, not due to US policy in isolation, then the rise of China in an Asia that is also rising as a whole, economically and militarily, is much less stark and consequential than implied by Hugh.

I therefore think it remains credible for the US and its allies collectively to protect their core interests, even in the face of rising Chinese economic and military capabilities. If there is a loss of status for the US in that context, it would be more towards its growing Asian allies, which will demand more say and influence commensurate to the capabilities and political stakes they bring to the alliance, rather than to China. 

Hugh thinks the core question is whether the US and other countries accept a change in the Asian order or not. I think that there is no doubt the order is already changing. Chinese economic and diplomatic influence is growing and changing the face of regional and global institutions, to better reflect its status as one of several emerging powers. 

If some Asian countries freely choose to closely align and integrate with China, they are most welcome, and there is every reason to engage China economically, diplomatically, culturally and even militarily for the benefit of all. 

The crucial question is whether we accept China's change being imposed by armed force — a point that Hugh seems ambivalent about. To me, the use of armed force is where we should draw the line.

First, and perhaps least important, any use of armed force tears at the fabric of regional economic integration that sustains regional (and Australian) economic success. Second, if China could pick on its neighbours one-by-one, its appetite could well increase with its eating. In a situation where China itself does not know what it wants from and in Asia, this is a temptation to avoid. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it is not for one ally to tell the other what is his core interest. 

The integrity of NATO's Cold War posture suffered grievously from the need for 'forward defence', because Germany did not allow even consideration of tactical retreats that would expose German territory and population. This was the political price that allies had to pay for alliance cohesion and therefore regional stability. The same applies to Japan and the Senkaku islands, for example. I do not think the US has a real choice on this matter — any alliance against a real threat is an entangling one.

Hugh sees an inconsistency in using engagement as well as hedging against Chinese use of armed force, for two reasons: first, because 'China's navy won't necessarily make Asians more deferential to China, but its economy might'. This is the old argument that economic integration will reduce international conflict. Applying it selectively to US allies, and not to the US itself, makes the latter seem the sources of tension in Asia. Even if that was the case, where is the evidence that Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea or Japan are growing more, rather than less, willing to accommodate China, and distance themselves from the US as China grows?

Second, Hugh seems to think China will not settle for the status quo on disputed territories, and that hedging at a 'forward defence' line essentially is a recipe for a new Cold War. 

The ideological and economic competition of the Cold War does not exist today and is unlikely to come back. But ultimately the military-political side of Cold War confrontation helped establish clear rules of the road, which led to a stable order despite waxing and waning fortunes of both sides. Hugh and I might differ whether it would have been better to be red than dead, but I think that hedging in Asia today should also be sharpened and accentuated, and be used by the US and its allies to draw clear lines in the sand (or, rather, water). 

The US should never drive carriers through the Taiwan Straits again — but equally, it should be clear to the Chinese that forcefully occupying disputed islands would be playing with fire and imply a very small, but greater than zero, chance of unlimited escalation. Recent US military and diplomatic moves to support Southeast Asia against Chinese intimidation in the South China Sea, and the extension of the US guarantees to include the Senkaku islands, are a useful beginning in this sense.

Hugh is right to point out the horrible precedent of 1914. But if European powers had fully comprehended how serious the others were about each step they took on the road to war, there would have been ample opportunity to stop it. And had they done so, who is to say that Germany would not have gotten its place in the sun after all?

Photo by Flickr user Humpalumpa.