By Hugh White
I completely agree with Ernie Bower in rejecting the view that as China’s power grows the peoples of Asia should ‘recognise China’s dominance and align their countries accordingly’. So naturally I do not agree with his suggestion that it is a view I hold.
I have argued – most fully last year in a Quarterly Essay Power Shift and in a subsequent article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs, and most concisely in this recent oped in the Jakarta Post – that America should not try to maintain primacy in Asia over coming decades, because that risks a very dangerous and costly escalation in strategic competition with China. Such escalation would be disastrous for everyone, including the US, because China is already, in terms of sheer economic weight, the most formidable strategic competitor America has ever faced.
But it does not in any way follow that we should simply concede primacy in Asia to China. I argue instead that there is a third possible future for Asia: a collective regional leadership in which the US and China both play equal roles. This model of Asia’s future is specifically intended to prevent regional primacy passing to China, while at the same time minimising the risks of strategic competition between Washington and Beijing.
One of the reasons why it seems to me so important to prevent regional leadership passing to China is precisely the issue of governance which Ernie’s post addresses. No one would willingly trust China with regional primacy while its government functions as it does today. But that does not mean we cannot make more modest accommodations with China’s power. There would be risks, of course. But there would also be risks – very grave risks – in trying to preserve the US-led status quo unchanged as relative power in Asia shifts.
Those are the risks we are running today. Over the past few years, America and its allies have clearly embarked on a policy to resist any dilution of US strategic and political primacy in Asia, and hence any accommodation of China’s growing power. Will this lead to a peaceful future for Asia? Only if we believe that China will become less assertive, and more willing to accept the US-led status quo, as it grows stronger. And how likely is that, even if – a big ‘if’ – China’s governance improves?
The present policy will lead most probably to disastrously escalating strategic competition between the world’s two strongest states. I think many sensible people are nonetheless drawn to this policy because they do assume, as I think Ernie does, that the only alternative is to concede primacy in Asia to China. They should pause to consider the third option. At the risk of seeming melodramatic, there must be a better way to avoid Chinese hegemony than by driving ourselves into a new Cold War, or worse.
Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.