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The importance of China's latent power

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1 May 2012 09:36

Brendan Taylor's post on Asia's shifting power balance shows his characteristic mix of grace and insight. I usually end up agreeing with Brendan. For years he has been telling me I'm wrong to see Japan as a great power in Asia's emerging strategic order, and I'm starting at last to see he may be right. He might yet talk me round on this issue too. But let me wriggle on the hook a bit before surrendering.

I've said that in both the economic and the military domains, relative power has already shifted far enough from the US towards China to overturn the old Asian order based on uncontested US primacy. Brendan says the evidence isn't there to support this claim, because China has not yet shown itself willing or able to use its power to assert itself against other great powers. Three quick points in response.

First, I think his argument presupposes that power is not real until it is used overtly. I'm not sure that is true. Political power comes not just from the act of compelling others, but from possessing the ability to do so, and from others' perceptions of that ability. The boss doesn’t have to sack me to get my attention, or even threaten to sack me. The fact that he can sack me is enough. 

Likewise, the fact that China can now, much more easily than a decade ago, destabilise America's economy or sink an American carrier makes a difference to many transactions between them, even though China has no intention of doing either.

Second, as Brendan notes, China has shown surprising restraint over issues like India's Agni test and the Marine deployment to Darwin. If China is now so strong, he asks, why doesn't it make more fuss about things it obviously doesn't like? 

I think here we are here taking America as the standard for judging how a great power behaves. For a long time now, Washington has been in the habit of loudly denouncing and trying to stop anything it dislikes. But often it finds that there is nothing much it can do (North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs come to mind) so it ends up looking weak. 

China may well have decided to act differently, and not make a big fuss about things that it cannot change. Nothing China could have said or done about the Agni would make India give it up, so why go on about it? That doesn't sound like weakness to me. It sounds smart.

Third, the balance of relative power does not need to shift very much before it undermines the post-Vietnam status quo. China does not need to become strong enough to dominate Asia itself. It only needs to become strong enough to stop America dominating, or indeed to raise the costs to America of maintaining its dominance past the point that it is worth America's while. That is a very different thing. In fact, China has probably had the power for a long time. What's changed is that America and the rest of us are now realising it.

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