Below is part 2 of my interview with renowned US foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead; part 1 here. This interview series will mark the close of our Australia in the Asian Century feature, though you'll note from Walter's answer below how easily this discussion flows into the debate we're now staging about China containment in our Australia's defence challenges feature.
Q. Walter, I’d like to press you on the last part of your previous answer, where you said 'the US goal in Asia, as in Europe, is not to dominate a region but to promote the emergence of a peaceful order which meets the needs of the people in the region but offers good economic opportunities to the US and keeps security threats from emerging.'
There is a notable difference between Cold War Europe and Asia today, is there not? The US recognised a Soviet sphere of influence in eastern Europe and treated the USSR as a strategic equal. By contrast, rather than a bipolar balance of power as we had in Europe in the Cold War, the Asia Pacific is today marked by US strategic predominance, which Washington shows no signs of surrendering. In fact, the US ‘pivot’ can be read as an attempt to reinforce this predominance.
Is this situation sustainable? As China grows to become the world’s largest economy, will it be satisfied to leave US strategic pre-eminence undisturbed, or will it seek to balance? Will the US accommodate this Chinese ambition, or resist it?
A. First, the Soviets really didn't consider the postwar division of Europe a fifty-fifty split. The US got the rich countries that had been historically the most advanced, with the most technology, the most resources, the highest overall level of development. The Soviet Union, devastated by the war, was left with parts of the Balkans and the most war-ravished parts of Europe.
Then, when I look at Europe today, I see that the US is strategically dominant, but other countries, like Germany, France, and Russia, conduct independent foreign policies. So I don't think that a preponderance of military power is the same thing as quasi-imperial domination.
Now we turn to Asia, where we see asymmetrical power balances between the US and China. The US may be dominant at sea, but no one is expecting the US to invade China, or fight another land war in Asia. So in that sense it doesn't seem so entirely different from the situation with the Soviet Union. But the thing to remember is that China has enormous economic clout in the region and this is likely to keep growing. So the US and China may each end up having certain kinds of supremacies in the region, and the economic interdependence between the US and China is so great that both countries would be very reluctant to break their relations or head into a military confrontation.
So I don't see the US, for example, as seeking to marginalise China economically or to block Chinese investment in other countries. And there are clear political consequences for countries for which China is both their largest market and their largest source of foreign investment. So when I think about a new order in Asia, I'm thinking about a kind of three-dimensional chessboard, and while the US and China may dominate on different levels, overall I'm not so sure you could describe this picture as total American domination.
And furthermore, I don't think it should be America's goal to try to be dominant on all three levels of that chessboard. The US is likely to seek some kind of balance.
The other big difference between Cold War Europe and Asia today is that there were no powers in Cold War Europe comparable to India and Japan today. The geopolitics of Asia today has more moving parts than the geopolitics of Europe during the Cold War. And that also points toward some kind of balance, rather than some kind of unipolar domination, either by the US or by China.
In the long run, I don't think the barrier to Chinese military domination is simply one-on-one competition with the US. Other countries like India, Australia, Japan and Vietnam, to name only a few, would respond to a Chinese military buildup. So we're not really talking about a one-on-one, China versus the US, bipolar competition. We really are talking about the emergence of an Asian society of states. And the US goal is not to overpower China by its own military might, but to promote the emergence of that wider Asian order.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.