Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 00:12 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 00:12 | SYDNEY

Yes, America has regional primacy


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.

15 August 2012 13:23

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

Ian Hall has raised some excellent points in his latest post in our debate about whether the US exercises primacy in Asia, and what that means for how it should respond to China's rise. Five quick points in response...

First, Ian doubts that America has had the power to impose primacy on Asia. I agree. I say in The China Choice somewhere that US primacy in Asia has depended as much on Asian countries' acquiescence as on America's power to impose, which is why America only gained primacy after China acquiesced to it in 1972. And of course, that is in the nature of primacy, which is the point of Hedley Bull's definition.

Second, I therefore don't agree with Ian that the US posture in Asia is a form of offshore balancing. I take offshore balancing to be what Britain supposedly did in relation to Europe in the era in which Europe's strategic order was characterised by a balance of power system. It stood aloof from the struggle for preponderance on the continent unless or until one side or the other seemed likely to win, when it intervened to prevent that by supporting the weaker side.

I'm not sure Britain ever really did act that way, but it is a plausible model which, I suggest in the book, the US could adopt in relation to Asia. But it would be very different from what it has done these last four decades, or indeed for the last century and more. America has been intimately and continuously engaged in managing the strategic balance in Asia by suppressing strategic competition between its great powers. Nothing 'offshore' about it.

Indeed I think the 'offshore' label is confusing. The US has been an offshore power in that, as Ian reminds us, it has never (since the Boxer Rebellion) been a major strategic force on the mainland of Asia. But from its maritime position it has, with Asia's permission, actively shaped Asia's strategic order. So America has been physically offshore, but not offshore in the sense of 'disengaged'. 

Third, Ian doubts that the US has been an effective rule-giver in Asia. I can see where he is coming from, and there may be an interesting debate about how far the US has actually shaped the Asian order over the past forty years. But what matters for the future of US-China relations is not the reality, but perceptions: how the US sees its role, and how China sees the way the US sees its role. Here I think it is clear that the US sees itself as having designed, built and maintained the liberal order in Asia, and it wants to keep on doing that. China sees the US as seeing its role that way, and wants that to change.

Fourth, and in the same vein, I'm not sure Ian's account of the US-India relationship quite captures the way Americans see it. My impression is that Washington has cultivated New Delhi precisely because it has expected India to support its vision of America's leadership in Asia against the challenge from China. I think America is wrong to expect India to behave this way, but that's the way they see it – and that's what is driving US policies, and China's too.

Finally, and most importantly, Ian says America can't share power with China because China's intentions are too uncertain and its political system is too opaque. The debating point here is that Ian's conclusion undercuts his earlier argument that the US does not exercise primacy and is already sharing power. 

But the deeper point really gets to the heart of the argument I set out in The China Choice. Many things about China make it difficult for Washington to share power with Beijing, but 'can't' is a big word. The question is, what will it cost not to share power with China? Recognising the costs and risks of rivalry is the core to the whole issue. I think the costs are grave.

Photo by Flickr user chidorian.