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Monday 19 Feb 2018 | 08:59 | SYDNEY
Monday 19 Feb 2018 | 08:59 | SYDNEY

Avoiding Asia's decline and fall



9 July 2008 17:19

On strategic affairs I usually seem to be the most pessimistic person in any discussion, so it was nice to find my colleague Raoul Henirichs is even gloomier than me in his recent post about the chances of building a peaceful new order in Asia. 

Raoul is right that building the kind of stable ‘concert of power’ that seems to me to be the only hope for peace will be very hard indeed. But I do not follow Raoul in concluding, as I think he does, that failure is inevitable, and that whatever we do, the region is fated to sink into a more violent, contested and impoverished future. What makes me think we can avoid this sad future is that we all have such a lot to gain by avoiding it, and so much to lose by falling into it.  Rational people can find a way to avoid such disasters. People and nations often do behave irrationally, but they are also capable of acting rationally. But to do that they have to understand the choices and consequences that face them.

The risk of failure to build a new order in Asia arises most from the probability that peoples and their governments will not understand either the risks we face or the opportunities to avoid them. Quite simply, if we all take for granted that the peace between major powers in Asia that we have enjoyed for the past thirty years will last for ever (and many people are sure of this), then no one will take the big steps needed to make sure it actually does. 

Likewise, if we assume we are headed for trouble no matter what, we will equally be unlikely to take any steps to avoid it. Effective action will only happen if we recognise both the dangers and the possibility of escaping it. That requires a delicate balance of pessimism and optimism. I’m often reminded of Gibbon on this point: about the failure of the princes of Europe to prevent the fall of Constantinople in 1453 he wrote something like, 'To some the danger appeared as impossible, to others as inevitable; neither were disposed to act.'

My very tempered optimism here reflects the hunch that everyone can come to understand how bad a bad future in Asia might be, and at the same time see that the major concessions needed from everyone to avoid it are much better than the alternative. And that can work: none of the very real problems and risks that Raoul mentions are unmanageable, as long as all the major powers recognise that nothing is more important than avoiding war between them. If that delicate state of mind can be sustained between all the big players, then we are well on the way to a ‘concert’. But I agree, it’s a big ‘if’…

Our Editor, meanwhile, makes a couple of important points about Japan’s position in all this. Japan’s role is critical – it’s not just a US-China thing. But I think the implications for Japan’s strategic posture are more radical than Sam suggests. Raoul touches on the nub of the issue in his post, but let me put the point more bluntly: a stable concert in Asia is only possible if Japan is no longer a strategic client of the US, and that means it needs to have its own nuclear weapons (Ed. note: Crikey!). It is a measure of the strangeness, newness and scariness of our future that we may find ourselves concluding that, absent global abolition of nuclear weapons, an independent Japanese nuclear deterrent is necessary for peace in Asia.

More generally I’m afraid I have much less confidence than Sam in the stabilising potential of ‘defensive’ force structures. Of course avoiding some kinds of overtly offensive capabilities like large amphibious forces can help build trust, but the distinction between offensive and defensive fails at several points. Taking Australia as an example: strategically we have a profoundly defensive posture, which translates operationally into a highly offensive one. But try explaining that in Jakarta…

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