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On Hugh White's 'Concert Of Asia'

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COMMENTS

8 July 2008 09:47

Hugh White is always persuasive; and this speech, made at the IISS in early June, is a particularly elegant account of how he believes the major powers of Asia must adapt themselves to a new kind of strategic order if they are to preserve the peace, stability and prosperity of the past three decades — and why he isn’t holding his breath for it to happen.
 
The basic principles of Hugh’s thesis will likely be familiar to readers of The Interpreter. If the US and Japan are unable to accommodate China’s rise, Beijing and Washington will be drawn inexorably into a systematically adversarial relationship, in which US primacy – which for the past thirty years has been the foundation of strategic stability in Asia – will become a source of hostility, competition, and possibly conflict.

The optimal configuration, according to Hugh, is a ‘concert of Asia,’ in which Washington gracefully concedes its primacy, treating China not just as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ but as an equal in regional and global affairs. China, for its part, needs to accept Japan as an equal and abandon its own hegemonic aspirations. And Japan must come to terms with the prospect of a long-term, cooperative relationship between the US and China, and increasingly provide for its own security.

Hugh is deeply pessimistic about the prospects for a Concert of Asia emerging, because the particular concessions that each party would have to make in the interest of the general good just seem too painful to accept. And while I share his doubts, my own pessimism runs even deeper.

Even if the US, China and Japan could accept the principle of treating each other as equals, it is hard to imagine how such an idea could be operationalised, or manifest in compatible foreign policies without the system devolving into outright strategic competition. First, because anarchy would be an enduring feature of the system, each side would be acutely sensitive to tests of resolve, and would continue to hedge against the possibility that the others might, at an opportune moment, eschew self restraint and push their advantage – or in extreme cases, make a bid for hegemony. This perpetual process of defensive hedging would in turn create a self-propelling security dilemma, eventually bringing about the kind of multipolar balance of power system which we are trying to avoid, with its shifting alliances and rivalries, and increased risk of strategic miscalculation.

Second, the influence of third parties could seriously complicate strategic interaction, making the transition to multipolarity dangerously unpredictable. Consider, for example, that for Japan to establish any semblance of strategic independence and equality alongside the US and China, it would have to embark on a relatively rapid military build-up, including developing its own survivable nuclear arsenal. Even if China could accept this as part of a grand bargain, how would North Korea respond, and what could the US do to mitigate the North Korean threat without exasperating Beijing? Taiwan would also be a dangerous flashpoint. Fearful that a Sino-American accommodation might grant Beijing the opportunity to reunify on its own terms, Taipei might move precipitously toward de jure independence, prying the two giants apart for the sake of its own survival.

Third, over time, a new set of grievances would almost certainly materialise, fueling mistrust and compromising any shared commitment to the general reduction of strategic anxiety. Japan may well overreact to its perceived abandonment. The US would harbor fresh historical resentment toward China for having dislodged it from its former preeminence. And while Beijing will have finally established ‘its place in the sun’, it will also be conscious of the fact that, having never met its potential, it may have prematurely circumscribed its own ambition. Given the interdependence of the system, any one of these grievances could reinforce the others. 

That Asia’s future appears to lie somewhere between bipolar and multipolar strategic competition is a gloomy forecast; a reflection, perhaps, of the genuinely tragic nature of great power politics.

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

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