Asia’s next tragedy of big power pol­i­tics


The drum­beat is, by now, familiar. Se­nior United States of­fi­cials use the Shangri-La Dia­logue as a plat­form to re­buke Bei­jing for dis­turb­ing se­cu­rity in the South China Sea, Chi­nese of­fi­cials re­ject the claims as “un­founded,” while ev­ery­one ex­presses the hope that the yearly meet­ings should be more about co­op­er­a­tion than con­fronta­tion, in the full knowl­edge that this is un­likely to hap­pen.

But, as a gloomy book re­cently pub­lished in Europe sug­gests, th­ese diplo­matic skir­mishes may just be a pre­lude to some­thing far worse: A di­rect armed con­fronta­tion be­tween China and some of its Asian neigh­bors.

The book, provoca­tively en­ti­tled “China’s Com­ing War With Asia,” is au­thored by Dr. Jonathan Hol­slag, one of Europe’s lead­ing Si­nol­o­gists, who ar­gues on the ba­sis of years of aca­demic re­search aided by fre­quent con­tacts with of­fi­cials at­tend­ing the Shangri-La Di­a­logues, that “the ful­fill­ment of China’s core ob­jec­tives” is ul­ti­mately “in­com­pat­i­ble” with the se­cu­rity in­ter­ests of neigh­bor­ing coun­tries and can only end up with ei­ther China be­ing force­fully re­buffed, or the over­throw of the cur­rent in­ter­na­tional or­der.

A peace­ful, be­nign out­come, Dr. Hol­slag im­plies, is no longer avail­able: China, he writes, “has no choice but to be re­vi­sion­ist; the sta­tus quo is not an op­tion.”

Dr. Hol­slag’s con­tention that “Asia is in for an­other tragedy of great power pol­i­tics” may be viewed by many as un­nec­es­sar­ily rigid and de­ter­min­is­tic.

Still, there is no ques­tion that the strate­gic pic­ture he paints for the fu­ture of the re­gion is both in­tel­lec­tu­ally com­pelling and pro­foundly scary.

Vic­tim’s View of His­tory

Dr. Hol­slag starts by ob­serv­ing some­thing that strikes many oth­ers deal­ing with to­day’s China: “The fact that Chi­nese in­sid­ers — from the young think-tanker to the se­nior politi­cian — all seem to be­lieve sin­cerely that their coun­try is not to blame for ten­sions in Asia.”

One ex­pla­na­tion for this could be the long his­tory of hu­mil­i­a­tions and bul­ly­ing meted out to China by other world pow­ers; this cul­ture of vic­tim­hood tends to pro­duce “tone deaf­ness” about the pos­si­bil­ity that other na­tions may see to­day’s China as a sim­i­lar bully.

An­other rea­son may be the sense of vul­ner­a­bil­ity that the Chi­nese still have about their coun­try; as Prime Min­is­ter Lee Hsien Loong re­minded this year’s Shangri-La Dia­logue del­e­gates, China’s eco­nomic growth “is not as ef­fort­less as it ap­pears to out­siders” and, con­se­quently, Chi­nese of­fi­cials may find it hard to ac­cept that their na­tion may be seen as men­ac­ing to oth­ers.

Ei­ther way, Dr. Hol­slag is right in point­ing out that Asia faces an en­dur­ing dilemma: “As much as neigh­bor­ing coun­tries be­lieve that China has to make more con­ces­sions, China be­lieves that it has al­ready done enough and that ma­jor pow­ers are play­ing up the anx­i­ety in its neigh­bor­hood.” In short, China and its neigh­bors are not talk­ing to each other, but past each other.

China’s Ver­sion of Win-win

Dr. Hol­slag is not a China-basher. He is at pains to point out that China’s pol­icy ob­jec­tives are un­der­stand­able and, on many oc­ca­sions, jus­ti­fi­able.

He also re­minds his read­ers that other Asian na­tions are also mil­i­ta­riz­ing dis­puted is­lands in the South China Sea, pre­cisely what the Chi­nese are now pil­lo­ried for do­ing.

And he ad­mits that China has fre­quently ad­justed its poli­cies in re­sponse to crit­i­cism from its neigh­bors, or a back­lash from the United States.

Still, he con­tends that de­spite the diplo­matic nim­ble­ness and oc­ca­sional flex­i­bil­ity Bei­jing has dis­played, China’s chief ob­jec­tives — which are to re­cover what it sees as “lost lands,” at­tain First World eco­nomic pros­per­ity and re­tain the cen­tral con­trol of its Com­mu­nist Party — have never changed and will ul­ti­mately re­sult in the rise of “a new Sinocen­tric em­pire,” one in which all the ad­ja­cent Asian coun­tries will be rel­e­gated to an in­fe­rior sta­tus.

Even the much-vaunted ar­gu­ment that China’s eco­nomic growth is ben­e­fi­cial for its neigh­bors is dis­missed as ir­rel­e­vant: China’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to move up the value chain in both man­u­fac­tur­ing and ex­ports will re­sult in the per­ma­nent rel­e­ga­tion of its Asian neigh­bors to the sta­tus of ei­ther sub­con­trac­tors to the Chi­nese econ­omy, or just sup­pli­ers of its raw ma­te­ri­als.

Although Dr. Hol­slag does not men­tion it, the joke among West­ern diplo­mats who share his views is that China’s sup­pos­edly friendly “win-win” ap­proach to in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions only means that the Chi­nese in­tend to win twice in ev­ery com­pe­ti­tion.

One may quib­ble with an anal­y­sis that treats all fu­ture Asian de­vel­op­ments as lin­ear, go­ing in only one di­rec­tion, and prob­a­bly takes in­suf­fi­cient ac­count of the op­tions avail­able to other Asian coun­tries in deal­ing with a loom­ing Bei­jing chal­lenge.

Still, it is a fact that not one of the poli­cies that both West­ern and Asian na­tions have tried in en­gag­ing with China has pro­duced the de­sired re­sults, so, at least for the mo­ment, the doom­say­ers ap­pear to have been vin­di­cated.

The big­gest fail­ure be­longs, of course, to the idea that China’s rise could be en­tirely peace­ful, that the coun­try would join the ranks of the world’s eco­nomic su­per­pow­ers, but some­how not be tempted to trans­late this into mil­i­tary might.

This was a per­fect con­ceit, an ar­ti­cle of faith that al­lowed politi­cians the world over to avoid a se­ri­ous de­bate about the im­pact of China’s rise.

And it was fol­lowed by a string of other fail­ures to an­chor China to the ex­ist­ing global or­der.

How many now re­mem­ber pro­pos­als for a “mu­tual strate­gic re­as­sur­ance,” of a set of pol­icy ini­tia­tives de­signed to achieve a sus­tain­able, friendly re­la­tion­ship be­tween China and the West, based on an un­der­stand­ing on key se­cu­rity ar­eas such as nu­clear weapons and mis­sile de­fense, space, cy­ber op­er­a­tions, and mil­i­tary bas­ing and de­ploy­ments, while also demon­strat­ing strate­gic re­solve to pro­tect the vi­tal na­tional in­ter­ests of each side?

The con­cept gen­er­ated many schol­arly stud­ies in aca­demic jour­nals, but lit­tle prac­ti­cal ben­e­fit.

Not much has come out of other frame­work ini­tia­tives, such as the at­tempts to make China a “re­spon­si­ble stake­holder” on the world stage, as then Deputy U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Robert Zoel­lick put it in 2005. And even the temp­ta­tion to cre­ate a “G-2” world, one in which global af­fairs are de­cided by China and the U.S. alone, work­ing from a po­si­tion of equal­ity, is now largely forgotten.

Chi­nese En­croach­ment

It is silly to sug­gest — as some an­a­lysts and aca­demics are do­ing — that the U.S. is about to “lose” China, for the sim­ple rea­son that China was never in Amer­ica’s pocket.

But it is a fact that the U.S. has failed to “gain” China and that, as U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter’s state­ments in Sin­ga­pore in­di­cate, elite opin­ion in Wash­ing­ton is swing­ing back to the con­clu­sion that China’s eco­nomic growth is no longer sep­a­ra­ble from Bei­jing’s global mil­i­tary foot­print, and that the two must be tack­led to­gether.

How­ever, at least for the mo­ment, that does not amount to a new Amer­i­can strat­egy that ei­ther con­strains or en­gages China.

U.S. mil­i­tary flights over ar­eas that China claims as its ter­ri­tory in the South China Sea have been go­ing on for years; all that has hap­pened is that th­ese flights re­cently gained pub­lic­ity be­cause the U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cided to al­low some Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists to wit­ness and re­port them.

A re­vived public re­la­tions ex­er­cise cou­pled with some tough mes­sag­ing to­ward Bei­jing seems to be the only prac­ti­cal and im­me­di­ate out­come from the lat­est claimed shift in U.S. pol­icy.

So, Dr. Hol­slag may be right to ar­gue in his lat­est book that, bar­ring some last-minute sur­prises, the fu­ture may yet be­long to a bipo­lar Asia, one in which a core of coun­tries de­pen­dent on China is sur­rounded by an outer ring of na­tions determined to re­sist China’s strate­gic en­croach­ments.

Seen from this an­gle, the real ques­tion is whether the U.S. in­tends to ex­er­cise a greater pres­ence in the re­gion in or­der to pre­vent such an Asian di­vi­sion from ever tak­ing place, or whether Wash­ing­ton will come to see Asia’s di­vi­sion as in­evitable, and end up just con­cen­trat­ing on or­ga­niz­ing the much smaller “outer ring” of na­tions, hedg­ing against China’s re­lent­less growth.

Yet in both cases, greater ten­sions and a new arms race are well nigh in­evitable, repli­cat­ing the his­toric ex­pe­ri­ence of Europe a cen­tury ago.

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