Asia’s future is in the hands of its middle powers

Hugh White, a professor at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, has been waging a determined fight against Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Asian regional vision in a series of articles and blog posts.

The crux of his critique can be found in the title of a speech he gave in Tokyo earlier this month: “War in Asia remains thinkable.” He points to the existence of two, overlapping contemporary Asian realities. One is the Asia in which cooperation and integration are proceeding apace as the region’s economies continue to develop. The other is the Asia of arms race, nationalist feuds, border disputes, security dilemmas, and possibly war. Professor White then focused on what the region’s powers can do to ensure that the latter reality is Asia’s future, positing that the options for a new regional order are (1) EU-style Asian integration, (2) enduring American primacy, (3) a balance of power, or (4) a concert of powers to run the region, with the US, China, and Japan at the center. He advocates the last, suggesting that the first is too optimistic, the second possibly unsustainable (especially because — and this is a key point — “The fear is that for many Americans primacy has become, not (as it was) a means to the end of peace and stability, but an end in itself. That raises the real risk that Americans will find themselves undermining stability in Asia in order to preserve their primacy”), and the third too dangerous.

But a concert will be difficult to achieve, because the US, China, and Japan would have to concede much to make it workable. The US would have to accept China as an equal, China would have to concede important roles to the US and Japan, and Japan would have to drop its antagonism towards China.

I would argue that Japan has the most to gain from such an arrangement: it would take a seat at Asia’s head table, would still have the US engaged in the region, and it would have the option of cooperating with China to restrict the US when the latter is out of line. In fact, I think Professor White vastly overstates Japan’s hostility to China. In a column in The Australian last week, he suggested that Prime Minister Rudd “flubbed” his Japan trip because he failed “to tell Japan that Australia wants a vibrant, strategic relationship with a strong and active Japan, but we also want the same kind of relationship with China.” I think his vision of Japan’s China policy is a bit dated (i.e., it’s a better description of the revisionist conservative approach to China than the Fukuda approach to China). Japan’s conservatives may ultimately win the fight over China policy, but for now Japan’s approach to China is no less contested than Australia’s (or India’s or America’s). Not all Japanese are as afraid of distance from the US as Professor White seems to think (in this post for example) — and thanks to the US shift on North Korea, even conservatives in the LDP who might have been reluctant to consider a looser alliance may now be willing to think otherwise.

Meanwhile, I think he’s too quick to dismiss a balance of power for Asia. We can already see how the Asian international system will develop in the behavior of ASEAN, which has maneuvered among China, Japan, and the US and made itself the hub for a variety of regional mechanisms. ASEAN and the region’s other middle powers (including the bigger middles, Australia, Japan, and India) will ultimately be responsible for keeping the peace in Asia, hedging against China by maintaining active security ties with the US to ensure that the US remains present in the region, hedging against a US attempt to stifle China by conceding a greater regional leadership role to China in the economic realm (and exploring new security ties with the PLA). In the meantime, regional integration would continue. Professor White says little about Asia’s middle powers in his Tokyo address, but I think that it will be the middles who determine Asia’s future because it is they who are stuck between the US, the longtime security guarantor, and China, their most significant economic partner. It is they who have the greatest need for stability and a sustainable balance between the US and China, moderating the extremes of each country’s behavior.

Japan, despite the size of its economy, fits the profile of an Asian middle power (in part because it is not open enough, and thus lacks the influence that comes with economic openness); despite the vitriol of the conservatives, Japan is not in a position to choose between the US and China.

There is still hope for peace in Asia, but it will depend on the middle powers to restrain the great powers and keep them from opting for policies that will drag the whole region into a conflagration.

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