Constructing a new strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific
21 Jun 2019|

It’s now clear that China wants to become the predominant power in Asia. Why should that be a concern? The answer goes to the heart of the intersection of interests and values in foreign policy.

Becoming the predominant power would make China the single most important shaper of the region’s strategic culture and norms. So whether it is a democracy or a one-party state matters.

We are now entering a potentially dangerous period in US–China relations. The voices of containment are getting louder.

There’s nothing new about the US being determined to hang onto strategic primacy. But what is new is the suggestion that this can be achieved by blocking or thwarting China.

Containing China is a policy dead end. China is too enmeshed in the international system and too important to our region to be contained. And the notion that global technology supply chains can be divided into a China-led system and a US-led system is both economic and geopolitical folly.

The US is right to call China to account. But it would be a mistake for the US to cling to primacy by thwarting China. Those of us who value US leadership want the US to retain it by lifting its game, not spoiling China’s.

China’s rise needs to be managed not frustrated. It needs to be balanced not contained. Constructing that balance and anchoring it in a new strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific is the big challenge of our time.

Most countries in the region aren’t comfortable with China becoming the predominant strategic power in the region. They don’t want to contain China but they do want to balance China; and, indeed, to constrain some its behaviour.

Already a de facto balance along these lines is in the making through the shared desire of the US, India, Japan and others to balance China. Each has its own geopolitical and historical reasons for doing so, of which the non-democratic character of China is by no means the primary driver. Moreover, this isn’t a classic balance-of-power grouping. It’s an organic, not an orchestrated, arrangement.

ASEAN as a grouping may remain on the sidelines of the strategic balance. But, with some notable exceptions, more and more individual ASEAN nations are being pulled into China’s orbit: not with enthusiasm or conviction but because they see that the economic cost of opposing China’s agenda is too high. Even Vietnam, which has a long and fraught history with China, will be constrained in how far it can go in lending support to balancing China.

The two Asian powers with an unambiguous commitment to balancing China are Japan and India. For both, China is the reference point of their strategic compasses. Geography and history pull them to the other side of the China balance. This creates common strategic ground between them and each is moving quickly to build on that foundation.

Balancing China should not involve a capital ‘A’ alliance of democracies because that would create a structural fault line in Asia and further harden China’s position. Avoiding an alliance is also a better fit with the strategic preferences of countries such as India and Indonesia, neither of which wishes to be an ally of the US or any other power. An organic balance is more in keeping with the strategic grain of the Indo-Pacific than a formal arrangement.

We are currently in the middle of a transition in international relations, and that is probably the worst time to put it into perspective. Some of what we’re seeing today are exaggerations or aberrations which are unlikely to become enduring trends. But others go to the bedrock of global geoeconomics. Deciding which is which is far from easy.

For example, it would be a mistake to see President Donald Trump as an aberration and assume that US policy will return to its norm after his departure. But equally it’s unlikely that all of his policies will survive his departure. It’s more likely than not—to take just one example—that the value of US alliances will be restored to a central position in US policy in a post-Trump world. And with China, we may well see a tactical shift in its approach as it recalibrates how far and how fast it should proceed with its more assertive foreign policy position.

Trends are like waves. We can see them on the horizon but we don’t know exactly when they will break and in what pattern they will reach the shore. We cannot, Canute-like, order them back. But we can prepare for them and think through what form we want them to take. They cannot be resisted but they can be shaped, and that is what the burden of policymaking is ultimately most about.

This article is based on a talk given at ASPI’s ‘War in 2025’ international conference on 13 June 2019.