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China and the status quo

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This post is part of the US China policy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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28 January 2010 12:57


This post is part of the US China policy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

I like Graeme's description of China as 'status quo-tidal', but I'd like to offer an alternative way of looking at the question of whether China is a status quo or a revisionist power. I think it all depends which 'status quo' we mean. If we mean the stable, open international order that Asia has enjoyed for the past forty years and that has been so essential to China's economic transformation, then yes, China is absolutely a status quo power – it wants to see all that preserved and strengthened. 

But if the status quo we mean is US primacy in Asia, then China is quite clearly a revisionist power. I have no doubt China seeks an end to US primacy in Asia.

Of course, for the past forty years, the two conceptions of status quo I've mentioned here have been synonymous: stability in Asia has depended on US primacy, and no one has been able to imagine any other way to keep Asia peaceful. That view is still widely held, especially in America. On this view, any challenge to US primacy is a challenge to peace and order – revisionist, in other words.

But in Beijing they see things quite differently. They see the linkage between Asian order and US primacy as contingent, and transitory. They find it easy to imagine a future stable Asian order underwritten not by US primacy but by their own, or perhaps by some other arrangement to share power among Asia's major countries. 

For them, it makes perfect sense to support the status quo of Asian stability, but not the status quo of US primacy. Indeed, they may think that replacing US primacy as the basis for Asia's order is necessary to preserve it in the new circumstances created by the new distribution of power. That makes Beijing a status quo power, under the old banner that says 'we must reform in order to preserve'.

They may be right. Trying to perpetuate US primacy might end up, not as the best or only way to support peace in Asia, but as the surest way to undermine it. As China's power grows, the US will have to decide whether to keep trying to maintain primacy in Asia or surrender it and seek some power-sharing accommodation with China (and maybe others) instead. 

I think it is clear which they will choose. Americans will tend to portray Chinese pressure on their primacy as a revisionist challenge to peace and stability, and react by confronting China strategically. The result would be America defending its primacy at the expense of order in Asia.

Who is the status quo power now? If US primacy is the only possible basis for order in Asia, than defending it is the only way to preserve order. But if Asia's order can be sustained on some basis other than US primacy, then fighting to preserve primacy at the expense of order looks revisionist.  Which all goes to explain why it is so important for us to explore whether or not there are new ways to sustain order in Asia in the Asian century, as some of my Lowy colleagues are doing with their work on Asian security futures.

Photo by Flickr user raemin, used under a Creative Commons license.

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