I n Asia, an old threat to peace is returning. For many decades, it has seemed almost unthinkable that the region’s major powers could again engage in a full-scale war, as they did 75 years ago. Today, the United States and China confront each other as bitter rivals. Each seeks strategic dominance in East Asia in the “Asian century”: the US wants to retain the primacy it has exercised for over 100 years, and China wants to take its place. The stakes are high. Neither side seeks war – in fact, both are keen to avoid it – but each seems to assume it can get what it wants without a conflict. Both are increasingly engaging in military posturing in a bid to convince the other to withdraw from the contest. The dangers of this situation are acute. A minor clash in somewhere like the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait could happen at any time, and escalate into a full-scale regional war, and even a nuclear war. And once the fighting starts, neither side is likely to show restraint. The consequences for the nations and peoples of Asia would be horrific. It is therefore vital and urgent to defuse this risk. This can best be achieved by easing the strategic rivalry driving the tensions. Opinion: India and China must revisit ‘Bandung spirit’ to avert a new Cold War To further that goal, states in the Asia-Pacific have to look to both Beijing and Washington, as the two rivals share responsibility for the escalating rivalry. But where to start? I think Washington offers the more promising policy opportunities – because it looks to the region for support against China. From Washington’s end, the contest is driven by unrealistic assumptions about its future role in Asia. Many Americans still expect that the US can remain the dominant strategic power in Asia for decades to come, despite China’s rise. They assume the massive shift in wealth to China makes no fundamental difference to the region’s strategic order. These naive hopes are driven in part by unrealistic assessments of Asian attitudes to China and the US. A surprising number of key figures in Washington still assume – wrongly – that countries across East Asia and the Western Pacific are eager to line up on America’s side in a new Cold War against China. Americans think they can rely on the unwavering support of Beijing’s neighbours to offset China’s growing power, help contain Chinese ambitions and ensure that the US remains dominant. This is plainly false. Of course, everyone in the region is anxious about China’s power, and how it will be used. And there is an acceptance that a strong US role in Asia is the best way to balance and limit Chinese influence, so we all want Washington to remain actively engaged in the region. Singapore minister: US, China divide a concern as they have shared goals But everyone also values its relations with China, and none wants to be drawn into a new Cold War against it. So Washington and Beijing have to find a way to accommodate each other – and that means the US has to make some space for China, because the Chinese government cannot and will not accept US primacy the way it has in the past. So Asia has to support the US in balancing China, but not in containing it. Why doesn’t Washington understand this? It is partly our fault. Countries in Asia have not generally been blunt enough with Americans about how we see developments in Asia and the region’s strategic future. And that is partly because we have not been clear ourselves about what has been going on as old-style power politics returns to Asia. The region has been too ready to believe that power politics is a thing of the past, and that the “Asean Way”, which has worked so well among the middle-size countries of Southeast Asia , will work just as well to soothe relations among competing major powers. Alas, that is not proving to be the case. If the US and China go to war, whose side is Southeast Asia on? So states in East Asia and the Western Pacific have a clear task. We have to develop a much clearer and more realistic shared understanding of the risks the region faces from the rising strategic rivalry between America and China, of how they can best be managed in the interests of the region, and convey that to both rivals, but especially to Washington. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue last year was an excellent start to this process. “Small states like Singapore can do little to influence the big powers, but we are not entirely without agency,” Lee said. But much more needs to be done. Leading Asian countries should get together and have a frank and realistic exchange on the dangerous trends in Asia, and try to develop a shared view about how they can be addressed. This must include especially a view on the role we believe the US can and should play in the region in the decades ahead. And it should include clear messages about what Asian states are willing or not willing to do to support America against China. And then they should, separately and together, convey those ideas to Washington in the plainest possible terms. Because until US policymakers understand how the Asia-Pacific region thinks about these issues, they will not understand that their future in Asia must be based on some kind of accommodation with China. And until they understand that, there will be no constructive engagement between Beijing and Washington about their future strategic relationship, no easing of their rivalry, and the risk of a major war will keep growing. Hugh White is Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at Australian National University. He served for many years as a senior defence and intelligence official with the Australian government. This piece was first published as an essay by the Asian Peace Programme (APP) on September 25, 2020. The APP is part of the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. Read the original at ari.nus.edu.sg/app-essays .