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The Asian Power Squeeze

CANBERRA – As China gets closer to overtaking the United States as the world’s largest economic power, and its disinclination to accept US military dominance of the Western Pacific grows more obvious, America’s Asia/Pacific allies and friends are becoming increasingly anxious about their longer-term strategic environment. The nightmare scenario for policymakers from Seoul to Canberra is a zero-sum game in which they are forced to choose between their great economic dependence on China and their still-enormous military reliance on the US.

No one believes that the US-China relationship will end in tears any time soon, not least because of the mutually dependent credit and consumption embrace in which the two countries are currently locked. But the outlook a decade or two from now  is already generating a mass of analysis and commentary,  focusing on the tensions that have long festered in the South China Sea, bubble up from time to time in the East China Sea, and are forever lurking in the Taiwan Strait. What, if anything, can those regional countries with competing interests and loyalties do to avoid the pain that they would certainly face if US-China competition turned violent?

Probably no single one of us can do very much to influence the larger picture. But there are several messages – some accommodating, but others quite tough – that could very usefully be conveyed collectively by Japan, South Korea, the major ASEAN players, and Australia to China and the US, spelling out how each could best contribute to keeping the region stable.

Giants are not always especially tolerant of lesser mortals, but in my experience the US tends to listen most and respond best to its friends when its policy assumptions are being challenged and tested, while China has always respected strength and clarity of purpose in its partners and interlocutors. And messages coming in convoy are harder to pick off than those offered in isolation.

The first set of messages to China should be reassuring. We accept that it has always been more serious than most about achieving a nuclear weapons-free world, and we understand its need to ensure the survivability of its minimum nuclear deterrent so long as such weapons exist. We understand its interest in having a blue-water navy to protect its sea-lanes against any contingency. We acknowledge that it has maritime sovereignty claims about which it feels strongly. And we recognize the strength of national feeling about Taiwan’s place in a single China.

But these messages need to be matched by others. As to its nuclear and other military capability, mutual confidence can be based only on much greater transparency – not only about doctrine, but  numbers and deployment – than China has traditionally been willing to offer. Any increase in China’s nuclear arsenal is destabilizing and utterly counterproductive to its stated goal of global nuclear disarmament. If other countries in the region are to diminish their reliance on the US nuclear deterrent (and not acquire any nuclear capability of their own), they must be confident in their ability to deal with any conceivable threat by conventional means.

In this context, China should expect no diminution in the commitment of America’s traditional allies in the region to that relationship, and to the US support that might be expected to continue to flow from it. And while the defense planning of others in the region assumes no malign intent by China, such planning must be conducted – as evident in Australia’s recent Defence White Paper – with the capability of major regional players squarely in mind.

Likewise, any aggression by China in pursuing its territorial claims, including on Taiwan, would be disastrous for its international credibility, for regional peace, and for the prosperity on which the country’s internal stability is premised. In the South and East China Seas, competing sovereignty claims should optimally be litigated in the International Court of Justice; failing that, they should be frozen, and arrangements for mutual access and joint resource exploitation peacefully negotiated.

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The region’s messages to the US need to combine traditional sentiment with some equivalent hard-nosed realism. Our appreciation for the security support given to us in the past, and which we hope will continue in the future, remains undiminished. But, paradoxical as it might seem, the Asia/Pacific region’s stability could well be put more at risk by America’s continuing assertion of absolute primacy or dominance than by a more balanced distribution of conventional military power. The wisest single message that its regional allies and friends could now give the US is one that I heard former President Bill Clinton articulate in a private gathering in Los Angeles ten years ago:

“We can try to use our great and unprecedented military and economic power to try to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity….But a better choice would be for us to try to use that primacy to create a world in which we will be comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.”

Gareth Evans, Australia’s Foreign Minister from 1988-96, is Chancellor of the Australian National University, Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne, and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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