Dual leadership in Asia can avert clashes

By Hugh White Source:Global Times Published: 2013-10-23 19:13:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Worries about security in Asia today usually focus on maritime and territorial disputes between Asian countries in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. But the real problem is the future of relations between China and the US.

If these two great powers can get on well, the region's maritime and territorial disputes could be easily resolved. But if they become bitter rivals, these disputes could flare into serious confrontation and even conflict.

That would be a disaster for both countries, and for the whole region. Leaders in both countries know that. They want a harmonious relationship which will promote peace and prosperity.

But the problem is that Washington and Beijing have quite different views about how to achieve that. Washington wants to keep things as they have been, while China wants big changes.

For four decades China has accepted the US as the primary power in Asia. Washington believes this should continue.

China sees things differently. President Xi Jinping says that China seeks a "new type of great power relations" in Asia. That means a relationship which is not based on US leadership over China, but on equality between them. That is very different from Washington's ideas.

US and Chinese conceptions of their future relationship therefore seem diametrically opposed and mutually incompatible.

But we should not be surprised by this. It is quite natural that the US should want to remain the leader in Asia, and to expect regional governments to support it. And it is equally natural that China should expect to play a larger role in Asia's strategic order as its power grows, just as the US once did.

Nonetheless, this situation is inherently dangerous, because Washington and Beijing cannot get on well if they do not share a common vision of their relationship. Instead, there is a real risk that strategic rivalry between them will escalate as each tries to impose its own ideas on the other.

We have already seen this happen. US President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia" has clearly aimed at resisting China's challenge and preserve US leadership.

At the same time, China appears to see disputes with US friends and allies in the East China Sea and the South China Sea as a chance to strengthen its challenge to the regional leadership of the US. 

Where will this end? The danger is that each side continues to respond to the other in an escalating spiral of confrontation which continually increases their rivalry and even the risk of direct conflict.

This can easily happen, especially when each side underestimates the other's resolve.

Americans seem to think that if they stand firm, China will drop its hopes for a "new type" and simply accept US leadership in Asia. Some Chinese may think that Washington's financial and political problems, and preoccupations in the Middle East will force it to step back from Asia and allow China to take its place as the regional leader.

Both sides would be wrong to think this way. Both are very powerful and determined countries, and neither is going to simply give way to the other. 

That means the only way to avoid escalating strategic rivalry is for them both to agree to a compromise. They would need to agree on a new order in Asia in which the US and China share power.

The US would still play a leadership role, but it would step back from the sole leadership it has exercised until now. China would play a larger role, but it would not become the sole leader either. Essentially they would share power as equals.

China already shows signs of flexibility, saying it is willing for the US to continue to play a major role in Asia. The US has not yet done the same, but as the pivot proves unworkable, perhaps the time has come for a new approach in Washington.

The author is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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