Asia's New Age of Instability

Asia's New Age of Instability

Mini Teaser: Asia’s four pillars of stability, bulwarks of a highly successful regional system crafted and fostered by America, are all crumbling. The region’s future will be shaped and defined by the struggle to replace those pillars.

by Author(s): Michael Wesley

There are also signs that some of Asia’s major powers have sometimes seen regional institutions less as vehicles for cooperation than for competition. Beijing’s clear preference for Asia’s premier institution is ASEAN Plus Three (China, South Korea and Japan). Tokyo, worried that such a small grouping opens the institution up to Chinese domination, prefers to add India, the United States, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. Japan and China each engaged in frenetic campaigning in early 2005 to gain support for its own preference among Southeast Asian countries. In the end, both versions of regionalism were created; the Beijing-Tokyo competition over regionalism may have abated for now but could reemerge in future. Regional institutions could generate Asian turbulence rather than assuaging it.

A third policy solution involves a combination of alliances and regional institutions. By investing in the alliance system and thus raising the costs to a challenger, the United States and its allies can deter China from taking on the status quo. The counterpart to this “hard” balancing is “soft” engagement through regional institutions where the deeper engagement of China will help socialize Beijing into accepting the status quo. The rationale is to soften the confrontational aspect of hard balancing while closing off China’s other options to being socialized through regional institutions.

This hedging concept, however, does nothing to mitigate the weaknesses in both the alliance and regionalism options. The United States and its allies still face real dilemmas in investing sufficiently in the predominance of the alliance system to deter China’s challenge. The allies’ commitment dilemmas—on both sides—don’t go away. And there is scant evidence that two decades of membership in regional organizations have “socialized” Beijing in any significant way. China appears completely comfortable in Asian institutions, even taking on an increasingly vigorous role, because they give Beijing a greater say in regional affairs while allowing it to cordon off any issue it wishes to avoid. Thus, Beijing pursues its stridency in the South China Sea, confident that the region’s institutions won’t discuss the resulting tensions against its wishes. The Asian institutions’ tendency to duck points of friction in the changing power order has led the region’s states to invest heavily in other responses: arms buildups, alliances and security partnerships.

The fourth prescription focuses on a great-power agreement on a concert of power. Proponents argue that, despite increasing instability and rivalry, Asia’s great powers will by necessity agree on the need to avoid conflict. A Concert of Asia would grow from a common agreement that tensions, territorial disagreements and misunderstandings should be managed without conflict. With solidarity among the great powers on this imperative, no single power could challenge the concert system. To manage international rivalries and dissension, a Concert of Asia would rely heavily on mutual commitment of the participating powers to the prerogatives and rights of each and their common responsibilities to maintain the region’s order and stability. For some proponents, this would mean that the United States and China would have to reach agreement that each has a legitimate role in regional leadership, which would require Washington to concede to Beijing a more substantial regional leadership role than it currently does.

The Concert of Asia, unlike the U.S. alliance network or regional institutions, is currently just an idea. It has no track record against which to test its prospects. But, like the other prescriptions, it generates doubts about whether it can mitigate Asia’s age of instability. Concerts, after all, will endure only when their members share fundamentally compatible ideas on what constitutes a stable and acceptable order. This appears to be a remote condition in Asia. There is a fundamental divide among developed and emerging powers on many aspects of the regional and global orders, including the composition and scope of international and regional institutions, the competing imperatives of sovereignty and intervention, and the operation of global markets. For the United States, the answer is for China and the other Asian powers to accede to the existing order; for Beijing this would be tantamount to followership, although it is unclear whether China has formulated alternatives for elements of the current order it opposes. These disagreements manifest themselves in standoffs within several institutions, and a Concert of Asia isn’t likely to avoid similar disagreements. There also appears to be scant incentive for China, the United States or any other Asian great power to concede parity to others. China sees itself as rising and the United States in decline, while many Americans see America’s problems as temporary and China’s ascent as destined to be short-lived. As long as their expectations remain divergent, Asia’s great powers aren’t likely to agree on their mutual roles and prerogatives.

AS ASIA’S emerging strategic rivalries intensify, the current menu of policy choices could actually worsen instability in the region. Strategies of predominance and hedging run the risk of exacerbating instability, while emphasizing regionalism or establishing a great-power concert would at best only paper over the region’s dangerous dynamics. Instead, Washington needs to return to the philosophy that underpinned its highly successful Asia policy in the last quarter of the twentieth century: investing in the stabilizing possibilities of Asia’s local strategic dynamics.

The most fundamental starting point for a new U.S. strategy in Asia must be an acceptance that the region has moved from a situation of a relative absence of rivalry to one of escalating rivalry. In this context, U.S. alliances and partnerships no longer hold the prospect of a “hegemony-lite” policy of making any bid for regional preeminence prohibitively costly. Instead, Washington should accept that the best avenue for countering Beijing’s regional preeminence is through local Asian apprehensions and balancing behaviors, which present China with a much more complicated challenge than direct military competition with the United States. American and Asian interests should coincide here in using these new dynamics of rivalry as stabilizing forces for the region.

Fortunately, Asia’s other new strategic dynamics provide possibilities for mitigating local rivalries with stabilizing factors. The vulnerability of Asia’s emerging powers to sudden disruptions in energy, minerals and food supplies is one such powerful stabilizing factor, reminding Asia’s great powers that if their rivalries spin out of control, they could jeopardize the very bases of their newfound power and stature.

Similar possibilities exist in the growing divergence between the security and prosperity interests of regional states. The growing codependence of Asia’s emerging powers on each other for their prosperity and economic growth should be fostered, as it is a compelling restraint on their strategic rivalry. At the same time, Asian states’ wariness of becoming too beholden to Beijing should forestall the prospect that the rest of Asia will slowly gravitate toward China in forming an exclusive economic and political bloc.

If America gets its approach to Asia wrong, it will exacerbate the region’s instabilities, ushering in a period of global unsteadiness. But as the only non-Asian country with the capacity to influence the geopolitics of Asia, and with a clear set of interests in the stability and prosperity of the region, the United States has a central role to play in helping build a stable Asia in this century. To do this, it must return to the original source of its remarkable policy success in Asia—a commitment to understanding the sources of local instability and investing in local impulses toward peace and prosperity.

Michael Wesley is an adjunct professor at the University of Sydney and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Image: Pullquote: For the first time in decades, the prospect of an Asian power hierarchy is imaginable, welcomed by some and feared by others.Essay Types: Essay