The future of Asia may be determined by the interactions between the United States and China, but it is debatable whether the two largest powers in the region should have the field all to themselves. Medium powers, including Indonesia, will be playing their part to ensure that the Asian Century delivers peace and prosperity for all people in the region.
In his latest book The China Choice — Why America Should Share Power, Australia’s foremost strategic thinker Hugh White argues that the intensifying rivalry between the two biggest powers means that how Asia evolves will depend very much on the decisions made in Washington and Beijing. While they face an array of choices, White says the wrong decisions raise the specter of a catastrophic nuclear war.
Leaving aside for now his contentious point about the inevitability of bipolarizing Asia, The China Choice arguably is one of the best books written to date about Asia’s rapidly changing geopolitical landscape. The structure and clarity of his arguments and the conversational style are accessible for non-specialist readers, along the lines of a “for dummies” book on how to think strategically, but there is no doubt about the seriousness of the analysis, the tone or the conclusions and recommendation that White puts forward.
It is timely too. For years, the world has been awed and impressed by China’s rapid economic growth, but recent events suggest that its rise will not be as peaceful as most had assumed. As it dramatically transforms the geopolitical landscape, it is also upsetting the balance of power that had been in place for the last four decades that provided Asia a period of relative peace and in turn allowed countries in the region, including China, to develop and prosper.
Underpinning this peace, White argues, is the uncontested but not widely-discussed American primacy in Asia. Now, as China is about to replace the United States as the largest economy in the world, which many predict would happen before this decade ends, there has to be a new arrangement in the way the region is managed. The new Asian order will have to take into account China’s hegemonic ambitions, something that it is flaunting more openly now, and America’s objective to maintain its long-held primacy. Unless managed properly, these two objectives could put Asia’s two powers on a collision course.
The ball is in Washington’s court. White charts three possible courses of action for America: Defend its primacy at all costs by using its military superiority to tame China; abandon Asia and let China have its way; or recognize China as an equal, at least in Asia, and share power. The author says there is only one right choice for America: The third option. The other two would be catastrophic, not only for the rest of Asia but also for America whose future, and hence interests, lie with this part of the world.
Where we take issue with White is in his proposal for the establishment of a “Concert of Asia”, modeled on the 1815 Concert of Vienna, which provided the peace and stability that allowed Europe to grow and prosper in the 19th century before it collapsed into World War I in 1914. After recognizing the presence of great and middle powers in Asia, from India, Russia and Japan, to South Korea, Southeast Asia and Taiwan in this emerging political landscape, he quickly discountes their role, arguing that ultimately the choices will be made by the two Asian superpowers, China and America.
If we take a snapshot of the current political landscape and focus only on the two biggest powers, inevitably we would come to the same conclusion of a bipolarized Asia and all that this entails. The real world, however, is no laboratory where we can hold everything constant and look at the interaction between the two main variables. And Asia, as proponents of Indonesia’s foreign policy ethos of “dynamic equilibrium” would argue, is a very dynamic region.
Even White admits as much, in that most Asian countries, including long-time allies like Japan and Korea, would not automatically join America in the event of a war with China. If a new Cold War was in the making, Asian countries would not immediately align themselves with either power the way many countries did in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Yes, in the emerging Cold War between China and America, Clinton’s “it’s the economy stupid” argument applies. For all countries in Asia, and, in fact, many in the world, including the United States, China has now become their biggest trading partner.
Would they risk their economic interests for a war that no one will win and almost surely, in the event of a nuclear war, everybody will suffer? That is one area on which The China Choice could have elaborated more. White made the point that the rivalry between America and China is unique in that the two powers have become economically dependent on one another. But surely Washington and Beijing will also be looking at the implications on their economies as they view their options in this confrontation. China today holds the largest amount of US Treasury Bills, such that it virtually underwrites the dollar exchange rate. In the wake of a conflict, Beijing would unload its holdings, which would have a devastating impact on the American economy. Never mind a nuclear holocaust — what about an economic holocaust? Beijing also knows that its own economic prosperity, from export markets to jobs, is tied to the fortunes of America.
The contest for primacy in Asia is turning into a high-stakes poker game, but one in which several different styles are at play. While China keeps all five cards close to its chest, America is playing a variety of seven-card Texas Hold ‘Em poker, where it keeps only two cards hidden, leaving China to guess about the various options of its rival. Other countries in Asia are also at the table, but it is unclear whether they are engaged in a multiplayer strategic game of chess based on the actions of Washington and Beijing, or whether they have been dealt into the card game, each with their own chips at risk. Either way, the two big powers cannot ignore the presence of the other players on the table.
Take Indonesia, for example. Straddling the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Indonesia controls vital sea lanes of communication. And for all its faults, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with Indonesia’s leadership, has helped shape the wider East Asia region through its active diplomacy over the last two decades. Doesn’t it deserve a place in the table or a part in this Concert of Asia?
Any analysis on the future of Asia must also consider the development in the Indian Ocean, something which White neglects as he focuses on the West Pacific side of Asia. For big countries like China, the United States and India, the Indian Ocean also has high strategic values. Indonesia, with a large coast lining the Indian Ocean, will certainly include this as one of its bargaining chips in the creation of a new Asia order.
White has little faith in some of the ongoing diplomatic work in the region aimed at building a new order based on the emerging geopolitical landscape. Some call it “containment”, others prefer the less offensive term “balancing”, but regardless of the nomenclature, current discussions to establish an Asia Pacific community — on which the Australian government has taken some initiatives — are held obviously with the idea of giving China its due and a respectable but not antagonistic place in the region.
White completely dismisses these inclusive multilateral diplomatic forums where everybody has equal say, describing them as reflecting “the older order in Asia rather than contributing to building a new one.” He writes: “New orders are not built this way. They are shaped in negotiations among the most powerful states — the great powers. Those negotiations do not happen in front of others, as they involve painful and reluctant compromises on key interests and questions of status.”
We argue the opposite and that the multilateral forum should be given the chance to work first. The future of Asia is too big and too precious to be determined only by two giant powers.
The writers are senior editors of The Jakarta Post and former editors-in-chief of the newspaper. They are Class 1979 and Class 2004 of the Nieman Fellowship program for journalism at Harvard University. Siagian was formerly Indonesia’s ambassador to Australia.