Commenting on Paul Keating’s speech about China’s strategic responsibilities in Asia, Michael Green asks how, under my model of an Asian concert of powers, America should respond to China’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). It is a good question.

China’s move is a clear attempt use the threat of force to push Japan towards concessions over the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands. In Chapter 8 of The China Choice I argue that a concert requires agreement between the great powers on basic norms of conduct, including especially a prohibition on the use or threat of force to settle disputes.

I also explained that a concert could only last as long as the parties were clearly willing and able to uphold those norms against any of their number who tried to violate them, with force if necessary. So if there was a Concert of Asia today, the appropriate US response to China’s ADIZ would be full military support for Japan in resisting Beijing’s implied threat.

Moreover, I think this should be America’s response to China’s ADIZ now, when no concert yet exists, because China’s action would otherwise set a very risky precedent. So there is probably less difference between our views on the current situation than Mike might think.

But we probably differ about where we should go from here. Like most of the US policy community, Mike seems to believe that China is not really serious about challenging US primacy. Faced with firm US responses to provocative acts like the ADIZ, China will back off and accept the status quo. There is thus no need for America to consider changing its basic posture in Asia to avoid escalating strategic rivalry with China.

I think this is mistaken. Beijing seems committed to fundamental change in the Asian order. And it probably believes that America will back off once it understands China’s resolve; it would be foolish to declare the ADIZ otherwise.

This means both sides underestimate the other’s resolve, and hence also the need to compromise in order to avoid a collision. This makes the risk of war much higher that many people realise.

To lower that risk, both America and China must compromise. China must accept the kind of restraints Paul Keating spelt out in his speech. America must accept that it cannot play a sustainable role in a stable Asia without relinquishing primacy and building a new and more equal relationship with China. So unlike Mike, I think America should do more than just stand up for Japan. To get the process rolling America should also start talking to China about a new basis for their relationship.

Michael might respond that America could never negotiate with a country that behaves as China is doing. But our Chinese colleagues might say that America would never negotiate with a China that didn’t behave this way, and they are probably right. US attitudes suggest that China has to threaten the current order in this way to get America to take its demands to change the order seriously. That does not excuse the Chinese action, but it does help to explain it.

Michael might ask whether China can be trusted to behave better once such a deal is done. I think there is a chance it will, if the deal gives it enough and the high costs of pushing for more are made unmistakably plain. And if not, then the Concert would collapse and we would just be back where we are now, but with the benefit of knowing that a deal was not possible.

My argument is not that I’m sure it will work, but that it is worth a try. That’s because the alternative is not the perpetuation of the peaceful status quo, but escalating strategic rivalry and growing risk of war.

Which brings us back to Michael’s response to Keating. He says he cannot understand why prominent Australians like Keating urge Americans to step back from primacy in the face of China’s challenge. Let me suggest three reasons. First, they take China’s challenge to the regional order seriously. Second, they don’t assume that primacy is the only possible basis for a strong US role in a stable Asia. Third, they clearly understand that the alternative of escalating rivalry between the US and China would be a disaster for everyone.

Lastly, I think Michael is wrong to say that only Australians think like this. We Australians speak more bluntly, but if Michael listens carefully he will find that many others in Asia say the same thing.

Photo courtesy of Sinodefence.