Many are trying to get their minds around what the huge change in the contours of regional power mean for the stability of the political order in Asia today. Are we doomed to inevitable conflict between the established powers, the United States in particular, and the emerging powers, notably China, as they jostle for political space?
On the surface it looks as though a tussle for hegemony over Asia might re-emerge around the flashpoints of territorial and other tensions in the East and South China Seas. To some, China and the United States appear to be muscling up to each other in the Asia Pacific security theatre, playing out traditional great-power politics in an increasingly dangerous game. John Mearsheimer reckons, for example, that rising powers must expand to survive, commonly leading them to seek regional hegemony and provoking conflict. Others suggest that international stability is a function of the number of great powers and the distribution of capabilities among them. A world in which there are more centres of power, in this view, is more prone to instability and conflict than one in which there is only one or two, so maybe China and the United States can do what Hugh White argues they need to — sort out mutually compatible regional roles.
The growth of Asia’s economic power and the potential that brings for the projection of political and military power (though not inevitably as the example of Japan thus far attests) has thrust the region onto centre stage of changing great-power global politics.
But does the economic and political transformation of Asia inevitably portend the rivalrous carve-up of Asia into the big-power fiefdoms that much of what passes for security thinking about the geo-politics of the region these days presumes?
Andrew Sheng says that the past year will be remembered as a year of shambolic shifts towards a more multipolar economic and political order in Asia and the Pacific. ‘The United States alone can no longer shape global destiny but will have to share power with allies and rivals, even as regional powers find themselves threatened by their own challenges’.
Sheng says there are four big interlocking forces that underscore the need for power-sharing, cooperation and adaptation: geopolitics, geo-finance, technology and climate change. At the geo-political level, the US pivot policy to the Asia Pacific in 2011 opened up the South China Sea as a new front of tension, even before the United States had managed to withdraw from the Middle East. Managing competing interests in the South China Sea even as China projects its peripheral power will be tricky into the future. The rise of regional powers, Sheng argues, means geo-political tussles with higher stakes, as in the South China Sea. ‘The potential for regional economic crisis, widespread technological shifts and climate change are three pressing issues that can no longer be solved by a declining hegemonic power alone, but require cooperation between affected states’.
In this week’s lead essay, Amitav Acharya underlines similar contradictions, agreeing with Sheng, in effect, that ‘the economic imperatives for cooperation have become as important as shifting political alliances’. ‘Take the United States and China’, says Acharya. ‘Washington insists that its rebalancing strategy enhances regional stability. Sure enough, it is possible to see the military dimension of rebalancing as crucial to maintaining the military balance of power in the region. But the economic aspect of rebalancing — the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — excludes China and challenges United States–China economic interdependence. Similarly, China professes a deep interest in enhancing regional economic interdependence. But its own initiatives, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and One Belt One Road, challenge long-standing modalities of regional economic cooperation’.
Security pluralism, argues Acharya, characterises the new political order in Asia. Security pluralism is not a purely balance of power system; it relies on other mechanisms. Security pluralism drives ‘mutual accommodation among unequal and culturally diverse states that preserves the relative autonomy of each and prevents the hegemony of any or a few … (and) respects political and cultural diversity, but fosters accommodation among the great powers and their restraint towards the weaker actors, such as ASEAN members’.
This is a better description of the Asia we live in today, reckons Acharya, than one that is straitjacketed into the paradigm of great power politics. If it is, one must agree with him that it’s a region ripe for institutional restructuring and innovation.
The month of May this year will mark the eighth anniversary of my posting these pieces on East Asia Forum in the form of EAF’s weekly editorial. The first posts, I’m amazed to be reminded, flowed every day or two for a couple of months after EAF hosted a major international policy forum in Sydney to explore developments in the regional economy and political relations after the global financial crisis. That forum was the genesis for what became an expanded East Asia Summit — including the United States and Russia as well as ASEAN plus six — via the failure of former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd’s hastily conceived and ill-fated Asia Pacific Community idea.
Eight is a good round number — even a propitious number. This will be the last individually authored editorial I shall publish on EAF. It’s time for succession and to call in the team.
The weekly editorial will continue as a collective effort.
An expanded editors’ group in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University will join Shiro Armstrong and me to continue the work that was begun eight years ago. We hope that you continue to find our Editorial Board’s collective effort valuable and relevant.
EAF has become the world’s leading centre of commentary on Asian affairs, with its twice daily contributions from top analysts and rising stars from around the region. This achievement is importantly a product of the ownership our contributors feel towards the product they produce each and every day of the year — and their partnership with EAF in stringent review and editing of their work. With over 30,000 subscribers of influence and their uptake in quality mainstream media, the EAF weekly editorials and posts will continue to take the responsibility to you, our readers, as seriously as your keen and loyal readership properly demands.
Peter Drysdale is the editor of the East Asia Forum.