Hugh White and others are right to worry about a drift toward antagonism among Asia’s great powers. China’s recent assertiveness in local maritime disputes should moreover disabuse anyone of the comforting conceit that China will forever meekly accept the meagre consolation of being an also-ran great power.
But China’s options for challenging the East Asian regional order are in fact profoundly constrained. In debating Canberra’s ‘China choice’, we must keep in mind the reality of China’s own limited room for meaningful choice in a more contested Asia.
China cannot and will not directly challenge America for regional hegemony in the foreseeable future. That’s partly because of the great economic gains China continues to derive from American incumbency. But it’s also because today’s East Asian order is underpinned by a broad-based constituency for American engagement, among American treaty allies, but also increasingly among potent non-traditional security partners, such as Vietnam.
More fundamentally, as Evelyn Goh has masterfully demonstrated, today’s order isn’t merely ‘made in America’, but bears the imprint of multiple authors, including smaller and middle powers anxious to enmesh both the United States and China in a region-wide multilateral security architecture. Talk-shops like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) are of course limited in their capacity to socialise and pacify great powers. But the proliferation of those architectures nevertheless reflects the real depth of regional resolve to uphold the status quo.
Even though China may chafe at American primacy, then, it cannot directly challenge that primacy without also challenging the densely institutionalised and increasingly poly-centric regional order American primacy supports. For that reason, a direct full-spectrum Chinese challenge to the existing order is likely to remain a non-starter.
If China can’t directly overthrow the existing order, an alternative might be to hollow it out and eventually revise it from within, precisely by embracing Rod Lyon’s call for a ‘responsible’ Beijing, more willing to shoulder its share of great-power obligations. In the security realm, a greater Chinese commitment to Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations could potentially prove a plausible mechanism of regional reassurance. Economically, meanwhile, the BRICS’ establishment last week of a New Development Bank (to be headquartered in Shanghai) may be read as a leading-edge indicator of China’s new willingness to outbid the United States in the provision of collective goods, at a global as well as a regional level.
Hypothetically, that ‘responsible’ path to revisionism could challenge the existing order incrementally, by providing an alternative source of collective international goods not tied to American hegemony. For the moment, though, this strategy also remains practically beyond China’s reach. Beijing’s late and lacklustre response to Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 dramatised a deficit of political will and logistical capabilities which together constrain a more systematic Chinese embrace of HADR as a lever of regional ‘soft power.’ Similarly, China’s own internal development needs limit its capacity to displace the United States and its OECD allies as a development financier and source of foreign direct investment, much less as a provider of an alternative global reserve currency.
A more ‘responsible’ China—more willing to shoulder the burdens of managing Asia’s and the world’s increasingly complex governance challenges—would be welcome. But shouldering such responsibilities will not thereby equip China with a Trojan Horse capable of effectively undermining either American hegemony or the East Asian regional order from within.
Bill Tow’s intervention reminds us that China—traditionally a continental power—is now eagerly embracing a ‘go-west’ strategy of integrating Eurasian ‘spokes’ into a China-centred ‘hub’ via growing investments in pipelines and transportation infrastructure. In contrast to the Cold War, China neighbours a now-diminished but still vehemently anti-Western Russia, which is increasingly dependent on China as a market for its energy exports. Similarly, China counts as its Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) partners a penumbra of energy-rich rentier-state autocracies, which are far less likely to resist Chinese leadership aspirations than China’s feisty East and Southeast Asian neighbours. That raises a third possibility: if China can neither smash the existing order in East Asia nor subvert it from within, might it eventually be able to secede from it?
The idea of an autocratic China—engorged with Central Asian resources and paramount over continental eastern Eurasia—revives a Mackinderian spectre that has haunted Western strategists for over a century. Fortunately, this option of a Chinese ‘re-balance’ to Eurasia and away from littoral East Asia also lacks credibility. Inevitably, as China continues to grow, it’ll assert more influence over its resource-rich Eurasian hinterland. But even as China’s ‘go-west’ strategy matures, its manufacturing sector—the key to China’s continuing rise—will remain hard-wired into regional production networks centred on littoral East Asia. Likewise, the countries to China’s West are unable to provide ready substitutes for either the Japanese capital goods, or the massive American consumer market, on which China’s manufacturing success still depends.
We are undoubtedly entering a more contested era in Asia, and must accordingly be wary of blithe assurances that we can effortlessly extrapolate from Asia’s peaceful recent past to anticipate its future. And a more multipolar Asia will undoubtedly pose real challenges for Australia, which since European settlement has almost only ever known an international order sponsored by its Anglo-American kin. But acknowledging those challenges should not blind us to the reality of China’s limited bandwidth of choice in the current regional order, which remains easy to join, but infinitely harder to smash, subvert or secede from.
Andrew Phillips is an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award Fellow and senior lecturer in International Relations and Strategy in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. Image courtesy of Flickr user Cindee Snider.