11/10/2014 11:18 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

How to Avoid Another 1914 in Asia in 2014


Asia's hitherto stable and peaceful strategic order faces pressure from the extraordinarily rapid shift in the distribution of wealth and power driven by Asia's, and especially China's, economic growth. These pressures have been most evident in the U.S.-China relationship, which inevitably forms the core element of the regional order, but they are also starkly manifest in relations between China and Japan. In each case, notwithstanding their deep economic interdependence, we have seen sharply rising levels of strategic rivalry, and a clearly increasing risk of conflict involving all three powers.

Even a short and limited conflict between them could have devastating consequences for the global economy, and there is no guarantee that it would be either short or limited. Any conflict would carry real risks of escalation which, once begun, would become harder and harder to control. We have an obligation to recognize and respond to the small but attendant risk that it could lead to a nuclear exchange.

Notwithstanding the very serious problems elsewhere, in the Middle East and eastern Europe, rising strategic tensions in Asia between the world's three richest states poses the greatest threat to global peace and prosperity today, and indeed the greatest the world would face since the end of the Cold War.

Rivalry and conflict in Asia is not inevitable, because effective action is certainly possible to avoid it. But such action must be taken, otherwise the chances of conflict will continue to grow and become, if not inevitable, then certainly very high indeed.

Effective action to address that risk must not be limited to efforts to address immediate issues of concern such as the management of maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. Important though these are in themselves, they are only symptoms of deeper stresses in the Asian strategic order. These stresses have to be addressed and resolved directly if the region's peace and stability is to be assured.

This will require a major transformation of the U.S.-China relationship and the regional order it has supported since America's opening to China in 1972. The existing order is being eclipsed by the profound shift of weight, as China's economy has grown to rival America's as the largest in the world. For Asia to remain at peace, a new and contemporary order has to evolve -- one which accommodates Chinese as well as American power and aspirations.

To date that remains a remote prospect. On the contrary, China and America today have increasingly divergent views as to their future relationship and roles in Asia. China sees America wishing to preserve the existing order based on U.S. primacy, while it wants a new order based on what it calls a "new model of great power relations." These different perceptions drive their strategic rivalry, and they have to be resolved if their rivalry is to ease as a new and stable order in Asia is established.

There is no cogent reason to assume that their aspirations are inherently irreconcilable, as each has so much to gain from cooperation, as neither could profit from a protracted strategic contest. But reaching an accommodation will be very difficult, because it would require each country to scale back expectations about its regional role -- roles which have deep roots in their national histories and identities. Selling that to domestic audiences would take commitment and real political skill on both sides.

Notwithstanding the need, it is not apparent that either side's policymakers yet seem persuaded that accommodation is necessary. Both seem to underestimate the resolve of the other and hope that they can secure all they want because the other will back down to avoid confrontation. This is how Asia today most resembles Europe in 1914.

Determining how these risks can best be minimized requires addressing two questions. First, what characteristics might we look for in a new Asian order which offer the best prospects of regional peace and stability over the coming decades? Second, how could progress towards such an order best be initiated? These are my suggestions.

Conceiving A New Order in Asia

We must start from the conviction that a new and stable order in Asia can be created that accommodates the shift in relative power and preserves the core interest of every regional country. There are many different models for the kind of order that could do this. But any order is much more likely to succeed if it embodies the following features:

  • Strong regional leadership roles in Asia for both the United States and for China, in which they share power in a relationship of equal standing.
  • An appropriate and secure place for both Japan and India which meets their essential security needs and provides them with a regional leadership role appropriate to their weight and standing.
  • Assurance for the security and well-being of the region's many middle and smaller powers.
  • An overarching commitment by all regional states to the core norms of international conduct embodied in the U.N. Charter, especially the prohibition on the use or threat of force to settle international disputes.

First Steps Towards a New Order in Asia

Clearly all states in the region must contribute to the creation of any new regional order. The essential first steps might best be taken through informal but focused discussions between the U.S. and China about the fundamentals of their future relationship, because closer convergence of their expectations about this is clearly necessary for progress towards a new regional order.

The most valuable first step towards such discussions would be for both China and the U.S. to communicate to one another, privately and eventually in public, their mutual acknowledgment of the need to reconcile their divergent expectations and their willingness to explore the compromises necessary to do so.

Even this first step will surely be difficult for leaders and citizens in both countries. But if due weight is given to the future of U.S.-China relations, and the future of Asia and the world, this simple but vital first step must be taken, and taken soon.