US geo-strategic leadership has been the foundation of peace and stability in Asia for so long that most people can hardly imagine anything different, and many certainly don’t want anything different. But the Asia-Pacific is going to get something different, whether we like it or not. Geo-strategic leadership in Asia is changing fast, in ways that have profound implications for the political and economic future of the entire region. How that change occurs, and where it leads, matters deeply to everyone. Yet most are still in denial about the fact that it is happening and are therefore doing nothing to try to steer it in directions that might suit their interests or at least reduce the risk of disaster.
To understand the change we need to see what went before. The critical fact about Asia’s strategic order over the past 40 years has not been the United States’ position as the predominant regional power, but that this position has been uncontested by any other major regional country. It has been this very unusual situation of uncontested US leadership that has given Asia such a long era of peace and prosperity.
Now this era has come to an end. China is resuming the challenge to US power in Asia that it suspended in 1972. The US and its friends and allies in Asia have been slow to recognize the seriousness of this challenge. They have assumed that China would share their view that US leadership offered the only possible basis for peace and security in Asia and was therefore essential for China’s own stability and prosperity. And they have assumed that China still accepted that — despite its impressive growth — it remains too weak to confront the US in Asia directly. They think Chinese leaders accept that any conflict would impose far greater costs and risks on China than it would on the US, so it would be easy for Washington to deter Beijing from trying a test of strength.
But it has now become abundantly clear that both of these assumptions are wrong. Beijing does not believe that US leadership is essential for China’s interests. On the contrary, President Xi Jinping has forcefully asserted his belief that China’s interests would be better served by a new model of great power relations in Asia in which the US plays a much smaller leadership role and China plays a much larger one. More importantly, Beijing does not believe that the advantage of either economic or military power still lies with America — China seems to see the consequences of a potential clash being just as serious for the US as for China. China knows — and thinks the US does too — that what is at stake between the two matters more to China. China thinks that gives it an advantage — and it may well be right.
Not understanding this, the US and its allies have until recently underestimated the seriousness of China’s challenge to the US-led status quo. They believed that a firm statement of US resolve would force China to abandon its recent assertiveness. President Barrack Obama’s Asian Pivot was intended to do just that. But the Pivot has not made China step back; instead China has become even more assertive.
This explains China’s current approach to issues like the maritime sovereignty disputes in the South and East China Seas. These issues are not simply about who owns these inherently insignificant rocks and reefs — China has chosen them as the arena in which the contest for the geo-strategic leadership of Asia is being conducted.
By using armed force to confront US allies over conflicting sovereignty claims, Beijing directly tests the United States’ willingness to risk an armed clash with China in these waters, which have, until now, been a US domain. The construction of military facilities in disputed islands is just the latest of China’s encroachments. Failing to stand up to these actions undermines the credibility of US alliances in Asia. And, because these alliances are the foundation of US leadership in Asia, this ultimately undermines US regional leadership.
China is very deliberately asking whether the US is so determined to preserve the status quo in Asia that it would go to war with China. President Obama has said that he would, at least over the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands. But who really believes him when a clash is unlikely to produce a quick US victory and could conceivably escalate into a nuclear exchange? Clearly Beijing does not.
Perhaps China’s leaders are wrong. But that will be of little consolation if their error only becomes clear once the question is put to the test. And they are probably right. Of course America wants to retain leadership in Asia, but it does not want to preserve the status quo more deeply than China wants to change it. Given the growing equality in power between them, that means some change in Asian regional leadership is now inevitable. The question is: what does it change to?
It would be a mistake to assume that the only alternative to US leadership in Asia is Beijing taking over as regional hegemon. This is, of course, a possibility. But only if the US decides to withdraw from any substantial strategic role in Asia, and if Japan, India and other major players accept Chinese preponderance. It is just as likely that uncontested US primacy will be replaced by a long and bitter contest for regional strategic leadership among a number of great powers, with a real and growing risk of major war between them. This would be a disaster for Asia.
The only alternative is the construction of a new order in Asia in which leadership is shared on the basis of some kind of equal partnership between great powers. Many hope that this kind of order will emerge more or less organically over coming years as enlightened self-interest effortlessly guides leaders in Beijing, Washington, Tokyo and elsewhere to wise and moderate mutual accommodations.
Well, that too is possible, but we shouldn’t bet on it. Adam Smith’s invisible hand works much less deftly in geo-strategy than in economics, because leadership is ineluctably a zero-sum game. It is much more likely that a stable and collaborative new leadership order in Asia will only emerge if political leaders are willing to work hard and make real sacrifices to create it. As a first step, both the US and China would need to recognize and acknowledge the need for mutual accommodation. China’s leaders need to acknowledge that it cannot expect to be Asia’s uncontested leader in the future. US leaders need to acknowledge that they can’t either. Only then can the two largest powers, and the rest of us, start to think about what model of leadership will work best in the Asian Century.
Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Australian National University.
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