Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Overcoming the China-US Rivalry: Time for a New Regional Order?

When the Cold War ended almost three decades ago, many believed that bipolar politics had finally ended for good.  However, the world actually became an even more uncertain place; lasting peace was nowhere to be found. And now, as we brace ourselves to weather the escalating trade war between China and the US, there are those who feel that a new Cold War is rapidly in the making.

Many Americans think that preventing China from disrupting the regional order benefits not only the US, but also the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.  Meanwhile, the Chinese believe that they are simply correcting the injustices that have historically been dealt to them by foreign powers.  Therefore, any country that intends to preserve the status quo is seen as perpetuating such injustices.

These geopolitical changes have provided rich grounds for academics and foreign policymakers to generate ideas in the pursuit of global order. Recently, the discourse has focused on the development of an Indo-Pacific cooperation framework. And for its part, Indonesia is pushing for an ASEAN-centric, inclusive Indo-Pacific region that is conducive for peaceful dialogue and multi-field cooperation.

At the same time, it is important that we also keep our minds open to the possibility of other forms of cooperation that could take shape around the world.

In his publication titled The China Choice, Australian Professor Hugh White outlined that there are more than two choices for the US in dealing with China. The first two choices are obvious: to confront the Chinese (as a means to preserve America’s dominance in the region) OR to allow China’s rise (while hoping that the Chinese would refrain from causing conflicts).

Professor White argued that the third choice is for the US to share power with China. Considering that both countries can deny leadership to the other, it is impossible for either China or the US to single-handedly dominate the Asia-Pacific. In other words, the idea of the US maintaining uncontested leadership in the region is as illusory as the fear that China will one day rule over the Asia-Pacific.

Professor White then suggested the possible establishment of a new concert of Asia, which is loosely modeled on the Concert of Europe that existed between 1815 and 1914.  Indeed, the Concert of Europe was far from perfect; conflicts continued to exist during the period, including the war for German unification. The Concert of Europe also ended with the outbreak of World War I. 

Nevertheless, when looking at European inter-state relations during those 99 years, conflicts among major countries were avoided because each of them recognize that they cannot dominate the entire region. During that period as well, Europe experienced massive growths in the economic, social, and political fields.  Such conditions founded Europe’s current influential position in international affairs.

According to Professor White, an Asian version of this concert would have four “great powers”, namely the US, China, Japan, and India, as well as “middle powers” such as South Korea, Australia, and Indonesia.  According to him, the rules of this “Asian Concert” are straightforward:

  1. Such great power must accept the legitimacy of the other’s political system.  In other words, the US should cease causing domestic instabilities in China;
  1. By agreeing to disagree, each great power must be willing to make concessions in order to achieve resolutions through peaceful negotiations;
  1. Each great power must allow others to build up armaments, and allow the use of them if there are forces challenging their status as a great power; and
  1. All the powers must be able to develop a “code of conduct” that would “govern” interactions with one another.

Of course, this perspective is not foolproof. Indonesia’s role as a middle power is eclipsed by the “great power politics”. Yet we all know that Indonesia is the largest country and economy in Southeast Asia.

Furthermore, although the Concert of Europe in its time brought peace to the people, the conditions may not be the same in today’s Asia-Pacific.  The Austria, Prussia, Russia and the UK of that old period are different from today’s China, the US, Japan, and India.  And most interestingly, the great powers of the past were never economically inter-linked so closely like today’s influential countries.

Regardless, in striving for an Indo-Pacific regional architecture, it is important that we constantly think outside of the box. This even includes embracing ideas and perspectives that are as brave as Professor White’s.

In dealing with China, we must go beyond the choices of confronting the Chinese head-on OR appeasing their rise to dominance. There must be a more nuanced third, or even fourth choice.  If China keeps on growing, then its economic and political clout would be overwhelming. Therefore, in the interest of most countries in the region—including Indonesia—it is important to “negotiate” a new relationship with China before the power balance further shifts in the Chinese’ way.