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The problem with 'primacy'

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

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1 July 2011 11:39


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

Stephan Fruehling is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Program, ANU.

The Interpreter has carried an informative debate on US policy in Asia in recent days, which Hugh White links to his earlier arguments about regional order and the rise of China. Hugh's post highlights how central to his argument is the concept of US 'primacy'. 

He uses the term 'primacy' in several different ways: as a US policy goal in its own right, as a description of the distribution of power in East Asia, as a means for the US to constrain China, and as a description of regional order. His unspoken assumption is that all of these are facets of one, more fundamental issue of US 'primacy'.

This assumption underlies his policy recommendations, and also the way in which he interprets Burns' and Green's statements and the wider US debate on the rise of China. 

This assumption needs to be questioned, because the concept of 'primacy' obscures, rather than elucidates, what is going on in East Asia. A core concern of Hugh's is to establish as the central policy question for regional countries whether, or how far, they are willing to support US 'primacy' based on US military preponderance. 

But this is a false question — US military preponderance does not exist independent of allies' choices. It is a consequence of their choices. The US military position in the western Pacific — as that in Europe during the Cold War — depends on the support of strong regional forces, especially the JSDF, and basing provided by regional countries. 

US military preponderance is a regional, rather than a unilateral US project. The question is less whether the US can preserve abstract 'primacy' than whether it can preserve leadership among its traditional allies and partners in (maritime) Asia. Shifting the focus from 'primacy' to leadership breaks the equation of political influence and military preponderance that underlies Hugh's argument.

Living within kilometres of the Warsaw Pact armies did not make western Europeans particularly deferential towards the Soviet Union. Nor is there any a priori reason why an increase in the Chinese Navy should make East Asians any more deferential to China than they are now. Primacy, whatever it was, may fade, and yet the Asia of the future may still look much like that of the present — as long as both China and other countries abide by accepted rules of international behaviour. 

But again, Hugh equates established rules of behaviour and international law with US 'primacy'. In a 25 June op-ed in the Financial Review (not online), he wrote that China becoming 'bellicose over disputed maritime issues such as the South China Sea' was a response 'in kind' to a US 'campaign to push back against China's growing power', including by possibly basing US forces in Australia.

But it is one thing, and perfectly legitimate, for China to vie for economic and political influence in other countries and thereby seek to loosen their ties with the US. It is a very different thing to use military force to become a law unto its own in any area it declares its 'core interest', such as the South China Sea.

By excusing China's behaviour, Hugh's concept of 'primacy' becomes rather dangerously similar to the idea that social norms, by restricting individual behaviour, exercise 'structural violence', and that physical violence is a legitimate reaction 'in kind'.

Nick Burns' 'predominance' and Michael Green's 'hedging' are not the same thing, and neither equates to 'primacy'. 'Predominance' is a condition of the (military) balance of power, based on US leadership in maritime East Asia. 'Hedging' is a way (or strategy) in which the US military position can be used, and which acknowledges that the consequences of the rise of China are still far from clear. 

Finally, US concern with encouraging China's obedience to international law is far less sinister (or naive) than an analysis focused on US 'primacy' suggests, and it is much more relevant for the choices of countries in China's neighbourhood than an abstract concept of US 'primacy'.

Photo by Flickr user Meneer Zjeroen.

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