Brendan Taylor is Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.
As China rises, how far and how fast is Asia's power balance shifting? My colleague Hugh White seems to suggest that this question has already been answered when he argues that 'the major strategic shifts have already taken place.'
Hugh is not alone in making such claims. Dissecting the recent fracas between Chinese and Philippine naval ships in the South China Sea, the American scholar Michael Auslin concludes: 'The Scarborough Shoals dispute shows Chinese assertions aren't stopping, and that Beijing's ability to intimidate neighbours is shifting the balance of power.'
But I'm not sure power in Asia has yet shifted quite as far or as fast as Hugh seems to imply. I'm even less convinced that standoffs in Scarborough Shoal can tell us very much about that anyway.
Much has been made, of course, regarding the importance of the South China Sea as a theatre for future great power conflict. Yet the connection between this theatre and Asia's larger strategic balance remains a tenuous one. This is because the South China Sea isn't really a vital interest for any of Asia's great powers (except perhaps for China), notwithstanding Hillary Clinton's claims to the contrary.
Rather than honing in on Chinese assertiveness in the strategically marginal South China Sea, I'd argue that we can draw far sounder conclusions about Asia's strategic balance by focusing on Beijing's recent restraint around issues where great power interests are genuinely engaged.
Take, for example, China's muted response to India's recent test of a nuclear-capable missile. Rather than throwing its weight around, Beijing's reaction was instead to claim that 'India and China are not rivals but cooperative partners.'
Chinese pronouncements have been similarly circumspect of late on issues where the US is genuinely invested. Beijing's reaction to the Obama Administration's September 2011 arms sales to Taiwan, for instance, was significantly less strident than previous responses to such announcements. Beijing has fallen more into line with the US and its allies over North Korea's missiles, publicly condemning Pyongyang's recent test and coordinating with Washington in advance of it. Closer to home, while the Chinese media went mad, Beijing's response to the recent deployment of US Marines to Darwin has been low key.
Some might say that Beijing's reticence in these instances is nothing more than a tactical move designed to repair the damage to China's image that its foreign policy assertiveness of recent years has caused. If that were the case, however, how do we explain continuing Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea?
The conclusion I draw is that Beijing does not think Asia's power balance is yet shifting in its favour quite as far or as fast as Hugh and others suggest.
This is certainly not to argue that power won't shift significantly over time. I'm in complete agreement with Hugh that there is a good deal of wishful thinking going around suggesting that China will inevitably falter and that American primacy will endure in perpetuity.
What I think it does say, however, is that Asia's power shift will be far more gradual. As Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers reminds us, it takes time to translate economic prosperity into genuine strategic weight. As the Asian century unfolds, we will need to find more sophisticated ways for understanding this process (particularly as it applies to China and, in time, India and Indonesia) and its ramifications for the larger Asian balance.
Photo by Flickr user Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games.