The unfolding strategic environment in Asia is generating two strategic competitions: one horizontal and one vertical. The horizontal competition is highly visible: indeed, we see the evidence of it almost daily, as regional countries contest their respective territorial claims. But the vertical competition is less obvious: it’s a contest over position, not of space. Rank and status matter in Asia. This is a region with a strong historical attachment to notions of hierarchy. We fret the consequences of a possible mishandling of the horizontal competition, but the vertical competition is probably the more serious one—because it’ll define the shape of the Asian security order in the 21st century. Why is that competition important? The main reason is that an era of relative Asian weakness is coming to an end, and Asian countries don’t share a unified vision of the hierarchy of 21st-century Asia. And that, in a nutshell, is what’s especially worrying about current security dynamics in Asia.
That’s not to say the horizontal strategic competition is irrelevant. It certainly isn’t. That contest has two core issues; the growth of Asian power projection capabilities, and the growing intensity of multi-player contests over small islands and rocks. The first of those issues is currently seen most clearly in the steady rise in China’s material power. ASPI analysts have talked before about the geographic expansion of Chinese military power as resembling a growing ‘bubble’, within which it’s becoming more challenging for adversaries to operate. That bubble is slowly expanding to cover more of the US’s principal allies and partners along the Asian rimlands, not to mention the US territories, bases and facilities to be found there. The growth of the bubble underpins Beijing’s ‘anti-access, area denial’ doctrine.
Moreover, China’s recent push on its territorial claims in the South and East China Seas is a clear expression of Beijing’s objectives in the horizontal competition. China knows that it’s well-placed to wear down rival claimants one by one, and that it can do so without provoking a real crisis because the dominant strategic power in the region—the US—holds no position on who owns what. But China isn’t the only rising Asian power. Other Asian countries are generating their own somewhat smaller power bubbles as their economic and military strength expands. And they too are pushing back in relation to their own territorial claims, against China or another rising Asian player. Those various territorial competitions are perhaps best described as contests in low-intensity coercion. No-one wants the contests to escalate, but nor are any of the contestants willing to cede its claim.
One of the reasons why no-one’s pulling back from the horizontal competition is because of what such an action would imply in relation to the vertical competition. Abandoning a claim against a rival would be tantamount to deferring to another player. And such a pattern of accommodation would underpin the gradual emergence of a new strategic order in Asia. And that’s why the vertical competition’s important—because it’s a positional contest for places in the emerging 21st-century Asian hierarchy. Australia isn’t a direct player in the territorial contest, although it has direct interests in the ability of its major ally to operate in the Western Pacific. Our bigger choices are the ones related to the positional competition.
At the moment, we’re not competing with much vigour in the vertical competition. We occasionally send signals that we need to ‘weight up’ in Asia, but don’t show much understanding that the real competition is one of privilege and deference. We’re Westerners, after all. We cling to a notion that the region is moving towards a number of influential states playing alongside each other on an approximately level playing field. That’s a model built upon the basic equality of states, and appeals to our Westphalian understandings about sovereignty. In practice, of course, we accept that all countries aren’t equally influential, but nor do they have to be. But the Eastern notion of Asia is different. Over the past 2,000 years Asian countries have been drawn to models of hierarchy, not equality—to vertical distinctiveness, not to multipolar sameness.
Australia, as a Western country living in 21st-century Asia, has its own conception of an ideal Asian security hierarchy, and it’s one where the US remains the pre-eminent security actor. We seek to buttress that order by encouraging other regional states to support politically liberal, economically open, and socially inclusive values. That’s a noble order to aim for. But it might overlook the likelihood of a looming hierarchical competition as Asian great powers struggle for places on the regional ladder.
Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user barto.