Of course, neither side wants confrontation, let alone war. But each side expects to be able to achieve its aims without confrontation because it assumes the other will back down. And we should be under no illusion about the weight of the stakes for both countries. The maritime issues in dispute are not the cause of US–China rivalry any more than the status of Serbs in the Austro–Hungarian Empire was the cause of the First World War.
Their contest is driven by mutually incompatible visions of the future Asian order and their roles in it. For both of them, this goes to central questions of national identity and destiny. These are just the kinds of issues that great powers do go to war over, and the mutual underestimation of each other’s resolve is how such wars start when neither wants nor expects them to.…
None of this is to say that confrontation or conflict is inevitable. But it is to say that the risks are very real and the trends are negative. Turning those trends around by finding a way to deescalate the rivalry is essential for setting the conditions for peace, stability and growth in Asia over coming decades.
None of us can afford to leave this to Washington and Beijing, because we simply cannot assume they will get it right. Others with an interest in Asia’s future — and that means not just Asians but everyone else as well — ought to ask what influence can be brought to bear to help manage the transition now underway in Asia much better than it has been so far.
That means recognizing and acknowledging the existence and scale of the risks of escalating rivalry — to break through the complacency that envelopes both Washington and Beijing. It requires us to accept that the old order in Asia is no longer sustainable: we will have a new regional order whether we like it or not. We must therefore think more creatively about what that order might look like. It is too easy to assume that the only alternative to US primacy in Asia is Chinese primacy, and both Washington and Beijing have reasons of their own to encourage that assumption.
But of course there are many other possible foundations for a new Asian order, which would serve the interests of all of us, including the United States and China, much better than either a protracted struggle for regional primacy between the world’s two strongest states or a passive acceptance of Chinese hegemony. Our challenge is to explore these alternatives and how they might best be brought about. It is an extraordinarily difficult task, but the stakes could not be higher.The National Interest
A Dangerous Superpower Showdown is Brewing: China vs. America in Asia
Hugh White | Professor of Strategic Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University