Since WWII ended, the US has been the fulcrum of the global – but especially the Asia-Pacific – power balance. Over these last 60 years, Pax Americana (the American peace) has given Asian states the breathing spell to put their houses in order, in the same way that the American market has enabled them to expand their economies at the world’s fastest rate. Hence, we East Asians expect the US to continue asserting its security interests in our home region.
Today’s world has many powers – but only one superpower.
The US is still Number One in both “hard” and “soft” power. China is still a distant Number Two.
Over the foreseeable future, however, East Asians must live with a China driving for great-power status, a resurgent Japan, and a predominant America.
The most crucial relationship
Of these facts of life, the US-China relationship is the most crucial. Their real race may no longer be military and coercive, but economic and intellectual. And the ultimate winner would be the life-system that ordinary people judge the best for them.
How, then, will the US-China relationship resolve itself?
The answer would not be as easy to foretell as older historical rivalries – for instance, that between France and Germany in the middle 1800s; between Britain and Germany beginning in the late 1880s; or between Japan and the “ABCD powers” (the Americans, British, Chinese, and Dutch) in the late 1930s.
In these earlier super-competitions, armed conflict was seemingly the unavoidable outcome. But, in our time – given the awesome power of nuclear weapons and the “connectivity” of globalization – the US-China rivalry needs no longer to resolve itself in shooting conflict.
Consider how the US-USSR ideological confrontation lasted 50 years – but faded away without outright war.
Nowadays, great-power relationships are made up of many complex strands. Not only are there more avenues for mutually beneficial contact – in trade/investment, multilateral diplomacy, and technology exchange. In an increasingly interdependent world, strategic interests often coincide – more than collide – as American/Chinese/Japanese/Russian interests do in the Korean peninsula.
US-China in the rules-based global system
So, when and where will it all end? In truth, China is not just reshaping the global economy. The global economy is also reshaping China.
China is moving toward an economic structure based on universal rule-of-law standards, the efficient allocation of capital, and improved corporate governance.
In short, China’s stake is growing in the rules-based global system that the United States has done the most to promote. Hence, these two contenders have a stake in each other’s prosperity and stability.
The Western powers no longer dominate the global media. Brazilian and South Korean soap opera, Japanese anime, and Chinese and Indian (Bollywood) films now compete with Western cultural exports.
Cultural globalization may now be more widespread than economic connectivity. In poor countries with limited foreign trade, Western “pop” culture borne by mass media is fast spreading, especially among the young, and replacing traditional ways of life.
This is why “cultural nationalism” is a rising clamor among less-rich country leaders. In the Arab World, such wariness of “corrupting foreign (read American/Western) influence” is widespread.
Democracy and authoritarianism
In global politics, the tensions within many countries persist between democracy and authoritarianism – and their future roles.
Democracy has a key advantage in that it can easily grow political stability of the kind authoritarian regimes can never approximate. Free elections and the rule of law make possible tremendous safety valves against political discontent.
On global inequity, despite the eloquence that launched the WTO in 2005, poor countries’ calls for fair trade, equal market access, and dismantling of subsidies/protectionist tariffs remain largely unheeded.
Indeed, Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz suggests that the demise of the Soviet Union freed the Western powers from the need to contest the allegiance – meaning “hearts and minds” – of the Third World, and exploited post-Cold War exuberance to create a global regime that promoted their self-serving interests. Such self-interests have hurt the poorest countries, instead of insuring more equitable systems based on values and principles.
For East Asia – more than for Western Europe – deep integration that submerges the nation-state is still remote. Over the foreseeable future, an East Asian Economic Grouping – even if it takes off – is unlikely to develop beyond a regional free-trade area, to match similar arrangements in Europe and the Americas.
For the ASEAN nations, the immediate usefulness of EAEG would lie in the framework of rules/procedures that it sets down – and within which not just China, but also Japan, must work – in their regional dealings.
The South China Sea and regional blocs
In recent months, sparring between Beijing and Washington has taken a serious turn – over China’s extravagant claim to large tracts of the South China Sea – which historically is Southeast Asia’s maritime heartland.
For other East Asian states, the imperative is to avoid having to choose between Beijing and Washington. Even US Asian allies increasingly see their problem as balancing in between two huge protagonists, neither of whom they hope to antagonize.
Taiwan, as claimant to one of the largest islands in the Spratlys, has made clear that it wants inclusion in any ASEAN agreement with China on a “Code of Conduct” on the South China Sea.
If US-China rivalries intensify, the Southeast Asian states would probably tighten up their still fragile unity – and rally around the leadership of Indonesia, their largest member-state. Certainly, most ASEAN leaders live with the knowledge that the alternative to regional unity is to become marginalized in global competition.
Japan would likely huddle under its American nuclear umbrella; a united Korea would have to navigate between the two great powers – favoring one first and then the other, as circumstances dictate.
In another 10 years, we may expect regional integration to become the global norm. Given the WTO’s failure to open up, the organization of regional blocs to create economic scale will likely become the major diplomatic activity of the next few years.
Among such regional groupings, EAEG could become the greatest – since it has vigorous growth engines – China and Japan plus upcoming ones like South Korea and Indonesia.
Burden sharing for enduring peace
In the near future, our statesmen would be tasked to replace Pax Americana (American peace) – which, at bottom, is based on US military might – with a Pax Asia-Pacifica (Asia-Pacific peace), which could be the peace of virtual equals.
Pax Asia-Pacifica could enable East Asia’s combination of progressive nations and visionary leaders to plan collectively and strategically for a better future for all.
The Asia-Pacific peace will entail security cooperation for regional peace based not on the balance of power but on the balance of mutual benefit.
Clearly, this concept depends on the understanding that it will compel burden-sharing by all Asia-Pacific nations so that they contribute assets to insure peace, security and sustainable development in our part of the world.
Pax Asia-Pacifica must be built on cooperative undertakings among the most affluent/powerful countries and regional blocs in our part of the world – the US, China, Japan, India, South Korea, Russia, Australia-New Zealand, and ASEAN-10.
Cooperation to prosper more than competition to dominate
Surely, a constructive Chinese role in organizing Pax Asia-Pacifica would demonstrate China’s commitment to becoming the “responsible stakeholder” that Washington has challenged Beijing to become.
China seems to see its own safety in promoting regional integration – in developing an “East Asian identity” – as economic partnering among regional states extends gradually to cultural, political, and security cooperation.
Tokyo, too, must take up a more responsible role. In fact, one of the key challenges for ensuring the Asia-Pacific peace is the maintenance of stable relations between China and Japan. In everyone’s interest, both should stop allowing the historical past to impede a more harmonious and sustainable Asia-Pacific future.
In the past, stability – even a flowering of civilization – resulted from great-power hegemony. But the age of hegemony has passed. Today, no single state – no matter how “super” – can act unilaterally.
In a world more interconnected than it has ever been, nations large and small are virtually equal in the restraints the world community places on their behavior.
Ultimately, relations among the great Asia-Pacific powers will always be an interplay of competition and cooperation.
The strategic imperative will be for all our countries to ensure that the spirit of cooperation to prosper is always stronger than the competitive impulse to dominate.