Jonathan Eyal In London

Asia's next tragedy of big power politics

Asia is in for another tragedy of great power politics, according to a new book on China that sees its core objectives as fundamentally incompatible with the security interests of its neighbours.

THE drumbeat is, by now, familiar. Senior United States officials use the Shangri-La Dialogue as a platform to rebuke Beijing for disturbing security in the South China Sea, Chinese officials reject the claims as "unfounded", while everyone expresses the hope that the yearly meetings should be more about cooperation than confrontation, in the full knowledge that this is unlikely to happen.

But, as a gloomy book recently published in Europe suggests, these diplomatic skirmishes may just be a prelude to something far worse: A direct armed confrontation between China and some of its Asian neighbours.

The book, provocatively entitled China's Coming War With Asia, is authored by Dr Jonathan Holslag, one of Europe's leading Sinologists, who argues on the basis of years of academic research aided by frequent contacts with officials attending the Shangri-La Dialogues, that "the fulfilment of China's core objectives" is ultimately "incompatible" with the security interests of neighbouring countries and can only end up with either China being forcefully rebuffed, or the overthrow of the current international order.

A peaceful, benign outcome, Dr Holslag implies, is no longer available: China, he writes, "has no choice but to be revisionist; the status quo is not an option".

Dr Holslag's contention that "Asia is in for another tragedy of great power politics" may be viewed by many as unnecessarily rigid and deterministic.

Still, there is no question that the strategic picture he paints for the future of the region is both intellectually compelling and profoundly scary.

Victim's view of history

DR HOLSLAG starts by observing something which strikes many others dealing with today's China: "The fact that Chinese insiders - from the young think-tanker to the senior politician - all seem to believe sincerely that their country is not to blame for tensions in Asia."

One explanation for this could be the long history of humiliations and bullying meted out to China by other world powers; this culture of victimhood tends to produce "tone deafness" about the possibility that other nations may see today's China as a similar bully.

Another reason may be the sense of vulnerability which the Chinese still have about their country; as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reminded this year's Shangri-La Dialogue delegates, China's economic growth "is not as effortless as it appears to outsiders" and, consequently, Chinese officials may find it hard to accept that their nation may be seen as menacing to others.

Either way, Dr Holslag is right in pointing out that Asia faces an enduring dilemma: "As much as neighbouring countries believe that China has to make more concessions, China believes that it has already done enough and that major powers are playing up the anxiety in its neighbourhood." In short, China and its neighbours are not talking to each other, but past each other.

China's version of win-win

DR HOLSLAG is not a China-basher. He is at pains to point out that China's policy objectives are understandable and, on many occasions, justifiable.

He also reminds his readers that other Asian nations are also militarising disputed islands in the South China Sea, precisely what the Chinese are now pilloried for doing.

And he admits that China has frequently adjusted its policies in response to criticism from its neighbours, or a backlash from the United States.

Still, he contends that despite the diplomatic nimbleness and occasional flexibility which Beijing has displayed, China's chief objectives - which are to recover what it sees as "lost lands", attain First World economic prosperity and retain the central control of its Communist Party - have never changed and will ultimately result in the rise of "a new Sinocentric empire", one in which all the adjacent Asian countries will be relegated to an inferior status.

Even the much-vaunted argument that China's economic growth is beneficial for its neighbours is dismissed as irrelevant: China's determination to move up the value chain in both manufacturing and exports will result in the permanent relegation of its Asian neighbours to the status of either subcontractors to the Chinese economy, or just suppliers of its raw materials.

Although Dr Holslag does not mention it, the joke among Western diplomats who share his views is that China's supposedly friendly "win-win" approach to international relations only means that the Chinese intend to win twice in every competition.

One may quibble with an analysis which treats all future Asian developments as linear, going in only one direction, and probably takes insufficient account of the options available to other Asian countries in dealing with a looming Beijing challenge.

Still, it is a fact that not one of the policies which both Western and Asian nations have tried in engaging with China have produced the desired results, so, at least for the moment, the doomsayers appear to have been vindicated.

The biggest failure belongs, of course, to the idea that China's rise could be entirely peaceful, that the country would join the ranks of the world's economic superpowers, but somehow not be tempted to translate this into military might.

This was a perfect conceit, an article of faith which allowed politicians the world over to avoid a serious debate about the impact of China's rise.

And it was followed by a string of other failures to anchor China to the existing global order.

How many now remember proposals for a "mutual strategic reassurance", of a set of policy initiatives designed to achieve a sustainable, friendly relationship between China and the West, based on an understanding on key security areas such as nuclear weapons and missile defence, space, cyber operations, and military basing and deployments, while also demonstrating strategic resolve to protect the vital national interests of each side?

The concept generated many scholarly studies in academic journals, but little practical benefit.

Not much has come out of other framework initiatives, such as the attempts to make China a "responsible stakeholder" on the world stage, as then Deputy US Secretary of State Robert Zoellick put it in 2005. And even the temptation to create a "G-2" world, one in which global affairs are decided by China and the US alone, working from a position of equality, is now largely forgotten.

Chinese encroachment

IT IS silly to suggest - as some analysts and academics are doing - that the US is about to "lose" China, for the simple reason that China was never in America's pocket.

But it is a fact that the US has failed to "gain" China and that, as US Defence Secretary Ash Carter's statements in Singapore indicate, elite opinion in Washington is swinging back to the conclusion that China's economic growth is no longer separable from Beijing's global military footprint, and that the two must be tackled together.

However, at least for the moment, that does not amount to a new American strategy which either constrains or engages China.

US military flights over areas which China claims as its territory in the South China Sea have been going on for years; all that has happened is that these flights recently gained publicity because the US administration decided to allow some American journalists to witness and report them.

A revived public relations exercise coupled with some tough messaging towards Beijing seems to be the only practical and immediate outcome from the latest claimed shift in US policy.

So, Dr Holslag may be right to argue in his latest book that, barring some last-minute surprises, the future may yet belong to a bipolar Asia, one in which a core of countries dependent on China is surrounded by an outer ring of nations determined to resist China's strategic encroachments.

Seen from this angle, the real question is whether the US intends to exercise a greater presence in the region in order to prevent such an Asian division from ever taking place, or whether Washington will come to see Asia's division as inevitable, and end up just concentrating on organising the much smaller "outer ring" of nations, hedging against China's relentless growth.

Yet in both cases, greater tensions and a new arms race are well nigh inevitable, replicating the historic experience of Europe a century ago.

And that, argues Dr Holslag, is the ultimate tragedy: "We know how the story ends, we do not like it, but we are seldom able to change it."

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com