America's role as a stabiliser in Asia

Zbigniew Brzezinski says America should seek to be a constructive balancing influence in Asia, which means building a solid framework for working with China. Conflict is not inevitable

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 February, 2013, 4:12am

Today, many anxious voices fear that the emerging American-Chinese duopoly must inherently generate hostility and lead to inevitable conflict. However, I do not believe that wars for global domination are a serious prospect in what is now the post-hegemonic age.

Admittedly, the historical record is dismal. Since the onset of global politics 200 years ago, four long wars were fought over the domination of Europe (1812-1815) due to Napoleonic ambitions; 1914-18 due to Germanic imperial frustration; 1939-45 due to Nazi madness; and, from the late 1940s to 1991, due to worldwide Soviet ambitions. Each of these wars could have resulted in global hegemony by a sole superpower.

Yet several developments over recent years have changed the equation. Nuclear weapons make hegemonic wars too destructive, and thus victory meaningless. One-sided national economic triumphs cannot be achieved in the increasingly interwoven global economy without precipitating calamitous consequences for everyone. Further, the populations of the world have now awakened politically and are not so easily subdued, even by the most powerful. Last but not least, neither the US nor China is driven by hostile ideologies.

Moreover, despite our very different political systems, both our societies are, in different ways, open. More than 100,000 young Chinese are students at American universities. Thousands of young Americans study and work in China. Several major US universities now have their own campuses in China. Unlike the former Soviet Union, millions of Chinese travel abroad as tourists and to work temporarily. Millions of young Chinese are in daily touch with the world through the internet.

All this contrasts greatly with the societal self-isolation of the 19th- and 20th-century contestants for global power. Mutual isolation in those days intensified grievances and made it easier to demonise one another.

Nonetheless, the hopeful expectation of an amicable American-Chinese relationship has lately been tested by ever more antagonistic polemics, especially in the mass media of both sides. This has been fuelled in part by speculation about America's allegedly inevitable decline and about China's relentless, rapid rise.

In the mass media, economically anxious American pessimists and nationalistically exuberant Chinese optimists have been prolific and outspoken in their simplistic view of the world and history.

Pessimism about America's future tends to underestimate the country's capacity for self-renewal. Exuberant optimists about China's inevitable pre-eminence underestimate the gap that still separates China from America - whether in gross domestic product per capita terms or in respective technological capabilities.

Paradoxically, China's truly admirable economic success is now intensifying the need for complex social and political adjustments in how a ruling bureaucracy that defines itself as communist can continue to direct a system of state capitalism with a rising middle class seeking more rights.

Simplistic agitation regarding the potential Chinese military threat to America ignores the benefits that the US derives from its favourable geo-strategic location on the open shores of two great oceans, as well as from its trans-oceanic allies on all sides. In contrast, China is geographically encircled by not always friendly states and has very few - if any - allies. On occasion, some of China's neighbours are tempted by this circumstance to draw America into support of their specific claims or conflicts of interest against China.

Matters have not been helped by the American media's characterisation of the Obama administration's relative rebalancing of focus towards Asia as a "pivot" - a word never used by the president - with military connotations. In fact, the new effort was only meant to be a constructive reaffirmation of the unchanged reality that the US is both a Pacific and Atlantic power.

Taking all these factors into account, the real threat to a stable US-China relationship does not currently arise from any hostile intentions on the part of either country, but from the disturbing possibility that a revitalised Asia may slide into the kind of nationalistic fervour that precipitated conflicts in 20th-century Europe over resources, territory or power.

There are plenty of potential flash points: North Korea vs South Korea, China vs Japan, China vs India, or India vs Pakistan. If governments incite or allow nationalistic fervour as a kind of safety valve, it can spin out of control.

In such a potentially explosive context, US political and economic involvement in Asia can be a stabilising factor. Indeed, America's role in Asia should be analogous to Britain's role in 19th-century Europe as a constructive "offshore" balancing influence with no entanglements in the region's rivalries and no attempt to attain domination over the region.

To be effective, constructive and strategically sensitive engagement in Asia by the US must not be based solely on its existing alliances with democratic Japan and South Korea. Engagement must also mean institutionalising American and Chinese co-operation.

Accordingly, America and China should very deliberatively not let their economic competition turn into political hostility. Mutual engagement bilaterally and multilaterally - and not reciprocal exclusion - is needed. For example, the US ought not seek a "Trans-Pacific partnership" without China, and China should not seek a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership without the US.

History can avoid repeating the calamitous conflicts of the 20th century if the US is present in Asia as a stabiliser - not a would-be policeman - and if China becomes the pre-eminent, but not domineering, power in the region.

In 2011, President Barack Obama and now departing President Hu Jintao met and issued a communiqué boldly detailing joint undertakings and proposing to build a historically unprecedented Sino-US partnership.

With Obama now re-elected and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping preparing to take over China's presidency next month, the two leaders should meet to revalidate and re-energise the US-China relationship.

Whether this relationship is vital and robust, or weak and full of suspicion, will affect the whole world.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to US president Jimmy Carter. His most recent book is The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives. Copyright: Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services