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Does the US have regional primacy?

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This post is part of the Hugh White's 'The China Choice' debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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14 August 2012 15:27


This post is part of the Hugh White's 'The China Choice' debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Ian Hall is a Senior Fellow in the Department of International Relations, ANU.

Hugh White is characteristically generous in responding to a blog post of mine about his use of the term 'primacy' in The China Choice. I hope he'll forgive a response and a widening of the discussion.

I agree with Hugh (and with Hedley Bull) that 'primacy' means 'preponderance in relation to a group of lesser states...achieved without any resort to force or the threat of force, and with no more than the ordinary degree of disregard for the norms of sovereignty...'

Does the US enjoy this kind of status in today's Asia Pacific? And does it aim to retain it? These questions are consequential for both Hugh's argument and for Australian foreign policy. If America does have primacy and wants to keep it, the risk of a serious clash with China is high. But if it plays a lesser role and intends to be flexible, we need not be as concerned as Hugh thinks we should.

For Hugh, the answers to these questions are 'yes' and 'probably', unless Australia can persuade the Americans otherwise. This is where, I think, we disagree.

Does America enjoy primacy? I'm not sure. First, I'd argue that US does not enjoy a 'preponderance' of power in today's Asia Pacific, and has not done since 1972. Nixon's trip to China was an acknowledgment that America could not win in Vietnam and, by extension, that it would no longer fight land wars in most of mainland Asia. It signaled a shift to a strategy of qualified offshore balancing – 'qualified' because of the continued presence of US troops in South Korea and Japan, but 'offshore' because it does not envisage the use of land forces outside the Korean peninsula. The 'pivot' does not change this strategy.

Second, I doubt America has ever been regarded as a legitimate rule-giver and -enforcer in the Asia Pacific. Sometimes it gets what it wants through persuasion, but often it doesn't, and then it has to rely on the threat of force. Threats and not persuasion are what the US uses to deter China from invading Taiwan and North Korea from attacking the South.

Hugh himself points to this 'legitimacy gap' in The China Choice (pp. 82-100), noting, rightly, that few if any Asia Pacific powers would defend American 'primacy' if the US decided to press that claim and China decided to resist. None of the major players – India, Japan, Russia and certainly not China – consider such an aspiration achievable or reasonable.

More importantly, I think, nor does the US. This is clearest not in US policy towards China, but towards India. Like China, India's strategic objectives do not always align with America's; also like China, India wants a multipolar international order to replace an American unipolar one. Yet for a decade the US has openly and enthusiastically aided India's rise, refraining from criticism even when (in climate talks or the UNSC) India acts contrary to American interests.

Washington, in other words, is happy to 'share power' with New Delhi, accommodating India even when it frustrates US policy. So why won't the US do that with China? Hugh implies (I think) that America is too short-sighted or too stubborn to relinquish its primacy. The India case points to a different explanation.

America can't share power with China, let alone cede East and South East Asia to China as its 'sphere of influence', because China's intentions are simply too uncertain and its political system too opaque. For those reasons, flexible 'congagement' rather than concert surely must remain the best strategy for coping with China's rise.

Photo by Flickr user Sum_of_Marc

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