Asia essentials: the conflict in the Asia system
21 Aug 2013|

President Barack Obama presents President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China with a gift of an inscribed redwood park bench at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., June 8, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

A new order’s being born in Asia and the power and number of the players mean it’ll be a contested order. The potential for clash and instability is high.

The 10 Asia Essentials of my previous post express these potential conflicts, as well as the effort to create some systemic harmony. The differences among the players explain why an Asian concert of powers is about as much organisation as the emerging system can carry. The region reaches for understandings and rules. A weak concert operated through a series of regional mechanisms is the strongest system in view.

Almost every Essential comes with a ‘however’—the tyranny of the ‘buts’ bedevils. Each statement of an essential truth is mediated by others that moderate, redefine or even confront it. Consider the first two Essentials:

  1. China is the great question mark but its power is not in question.
  2. The US is still essential but may no longer be the definitive power.

The uncertainties in the two Essentials are mirrored. The doubt about the US is what it will do rather than what it can do and has done—the difference between performance and potential. For China, the question about future performance is based on rising potential. What will China change or want or demand?

At the head of the emerging Asian system stands the G2: the US and China, the two biggest economies in the world. If the G2 can’t work then Asia’s peace is in peril. In turn, that’d threaten much that globalisation has achieved. Australia calls the G2 the crucial relationship, globally not just regionally, and sees it as of paramount importance for strategic stability in the Asia–Pacific.

When presidents Xi and Obama met, I had some fun with the idea that the G2 should actually be rendered as the g2 to mark its immaturity. A partial, even conflicted condominium beats an Asian cacophony. The g2 was a trendier version of Coral Bell’s idea of a ‘shadow condominium’. Drawing on Cold War experiences such as the Cuban missile crisis, Coral saw the ‘shadow condominium’ as a temporary power-sharing arrangement that emerged during periods of crisis to provide stability through joint great power management of the balance of power.

Asia needs much more than a shadow condominium that helps skate past crises. The problem for the G2 is that the US and China are already competitors in conceptualising both Asia’s strategic and trade futures. The G2 effort will be vital but it’s only part of the emerging system.

The power of others in the Asian system mean the analogy of the G2 as the head can be pushed further. The rest of Asia makes up a large part of the body and the nervous system. Asia will insist on the right to do a significant share of the thinking; the rest of Asia will be able to claim that right because the G2 will involve two competitors seeking compromises in their competition much more than it will mark true agreement. The lack of agreement in many areas of the G2 leaves plenty of room for a weak Asian concert to emerge—and to do some of the brain work. To extend the ‘small g’2 usage, this will be about concert, not Concert.

The interests of other powers (Japan, India, South Korea, Russia, Taiwan, ASEAN and Australia) mean they need to strengthen the mechanisms of Asia’s new system, both to maximise their influence and limit the G2. For the rest of Asia beyond the G2, concert can counter condominium.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user The White House.