Diverging Visions of Asia’s Future Lead to Polarisation

By Hugh White

Tropical Cyclones Ului & Tomas over the South Pacific. Source: NASA Earth Observatory image.

Well many thanks to Ernie Bower, both for his very kind recent remarks about my contribution to the debate on U.S.-China relations, and for his entirely apposite and stimulating observations on my description of America’s vision of Asia’s future.  Ernie was responding to my claim that America’s vision is of an Asia divided between Chinese-led and U.S.-led camps.  He says this zero-sum, Cold War-style polarisation is not what America wants.  In one sense, I’m sure he is right: America does not want China as a rival.  It would prefer China willingly accept America’s view of Asia’s future.  But that is a bit like my wife saying to me:  ‘There is no reason for us to argue, as long as you don’t make the mistake of disagreeing with me.’

Actually, my wife is far too sensible to ever say such a thing, but I am not so sure about U.S. foreign-policy.  The question is not whether America wants an adversarial relationship with China, but how far it is prepared to compromise to avoid one.  And I think President Obama gave us the answer in his very important speech here in Canberra this week.

“This is the future we seek in the Asia Pacific — security, prosperity and dignity for all.  That’s what we stand for.  That’s who we are.  That’s the future we will pursue, in partnership with allies and friends, and with every element of American power.  So let there be no doubt:  In the Asia Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in.”

In this passage, and throughout the speech, President Obama gave no hint that he believed that Asia’s future was up for negotiation between the United States and China.  He vividly articulated America’s vision, and made it clear that he expected China to conform to it, or face the consequences. In other words, he was saying there is no reason for the United States and China to be rivals, as long as China accepts America’s vision for Asia.

And that is a problem.  America’s insistence on asserting its vision and its leadership in Asia is certain to lead to an intensifying, increasingly zero-sum rivalry between the US and China, for the simple reason that China will not conform.  So I suggest to Ernie that even if the US does not desire zero-sum rivalry with China, it is not willing to do anything substantive to avoid it, and is pursuing a policy which makes it more or less inevitable.  One of the few things I recall from my brief study of the law is a maxim that goes like this: ‘A man is presumed to intend the natural consequences of his acts.’

Of course there is a lot more to be said about why China’s power makes it necessary to accommodate it, and how far America should be willing to compromise with China to avoid rivalry, and about what China should be willing to offer as well, and about the consequences for all of us if they fail.  But those are debates for another time.  And I know that in those debates, Ernie will continue to show those qualities, not just of incisiveness and wisdom but of openness and generosity, that so characterize his great contribution to our thinking about Asia.

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. This post was originally posted as follow up comment on East Asia Forum here. Posted with permission of the author


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