Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:14 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:14 | SYDNEY

What is primacy, exactly?


Hugh White

This post is part of the Hugh White's 'The China Choice' debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

10 August 2012 15:07

This post is part of the Hugh White's 'The China Choice' debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Many thanks to my ANU colleague Ian Hall for his post over on his own blog about my new book, The China Choice. Ian raises two concerns about the way I use the concept of primacy to characterise the place in Asia that America has enjoyed for the last forty years and at present seems determined to maintain.

First, he says that I do not define 'primacy' in the book in any precise way, and he is right. So let me try to explain here what I mean by it. As I wrote the book I was working with a definition I framed last year in response to a similar query posted here on The Interpreter by Stephan Fruehling.  The definition I offered Stephan was as follows:

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.

In fact, I had something like this in the early draft of The China Choice, but perhaps unwisely I sacrificed it to save space. Then, soon after the final text went to the publisher, I found myself re-reading The Anarchical Society for a speech on Hedley Bull I was doing at Sydney University. I came across a definition of primacy which I'm sure Ian, as one of Australia's foremost experts on Bull, will know well. It's in Chapter 9, p.214 of my edition, and Bull says:

A great power's preponderance in relation to a group of lesser states takes the form of primacy when it is achieved without any resort to force or the threat of force, and with no more than the ordinary degree of disregard for the norms of sovereignty...

I think this and the surrounding text captures rather better what I had in mind, because it embodies both the idea of preponderance and the element, so critical to the US position in Asia since 1972, of willing acquiescence by lesser states. On this definition, my catch-phrase 'uncontested primacy' becomes a tautology.

Second, Ian doubts that America has exercise primacy since 1972, or claims it today. I think this boils down to a question about whether the US has exercised and still seeks enough preponderance to qualify as primacy in the way Bull defines it. I think it does, because while it has not been able to set the rules unilaterally, it has claimed, and been conceded by others, a uniquely large role in setting the rules.

But if that doesn't satisfy Ian's conditions for primary, I'm happy to use another word. The key point for my argument is that, whatever we call it, the role America has claimed and still claims in Asia is one that China will not continue to accept as its power grows.

Photo by Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar.