Policy Review Banner

A "Concert of Asia"?

Wednesday, August 1, 2001

As the Bush administration was brusquely reminded with events surrounding the forced landing of a United States reconnaissance aircraft on Hainan Island after a collision with a Chinese fighter, it will very likely have its hands full dealing with the Asia-Pacific. Historic animosities and unresolved Cold War disputes, combined with continuing territorial disputes ranging from the South China Sea to the East China Sea, make for an insecure and unpredictable region. In addition, the issue of how to deal with China, a rising power and traditional hegemon in the region, is particularly problematic. Until the East Asian financial crisis of 1997, the conventional wisdom held that the region was set for an extended period of economic growth and tranquil security relations. To even question the notion of the Asia-Pacific as a place of progress, stability, and prosperity was to invite reproach for being out of touch with the reality of what one commentator described as a region characterized by “increased domestic tranquility and regional order.”

Such sanguine views of regional developments, prevalent in scholarly and diplomatic circles before 1997, clearly failed to appreciate the underlying tectonics of what in fact is a deeply unstable area, at once riven with serious fault lines both between states and within states themselves. As a result of the economic crisis, governments have fallen in Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea or, as in Malaysia, have come perilously close to the precipice.

It is likely that regional fragility is set to increase. A number of analysts have taken comfort in the region’s economic performance in 1999-2000, when the chance of further catastrophic decline appeared to have been arrested. The truth, however, is that many economies in the Asia-Pacific are stagnant. The partial and very patchy recovery since 1999 arose not out of any intrinsic resurgence in the Asia-Pacific economy or any fundamental structural reform and improvement in competitiveness. Instead, it has been the continued openness of a booming U.S. economy that has sustained what is essentially a two-year-long “dead-cat bounce” in the Asia-Pacific. The unexpectedly high demand in the United States provided a market for the heavily export-oriented economies of the Asia-Pacific. This factor single-handedly revived the flagging export industries of the region. With the U.S. economy slowing down from a decade of unprecedented growth and even threatening to enter a recession, the economic outlook for the region as a whole, especially the weak and vulnerable states of Southeast Asia, is grim. With even leaner times ahead, further political instability will surely ensue.

In Northeast Asia, China muddles along in a bid to preserve social stability even while attempting to reform its economy in an effort to adapt to the terms to which Beijing acceded in negotiating entry into the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, in Taiwan and South Korea, the ruling parties each face domestic opposition parties that resist current domestic and foreign policies. On the Korean Peninsula, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il pursues a policy of strategic blackmail whereby regional fears of war are exploited to sustain a corroding regime. Notwithstanding South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s sunshine diplomacy, Pyongyang shows no real signs of peacefully relinquishing the regime’s only bargaining chip, its nuclear and conventional ballistic missile program. In Southeast Asia, other than Singapore, the core states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are facing various forms of internal dissension that have attended the financial crisis of 1997. Secessionist movements, such as those in Indonesia and the Philippines, or severe domestic political transitions (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines) have devastated the straight-line projections of unrelenting economic growth that were proffered in the early and mid-1990s.

The country that is most fraught with internal conflict and whose problems have thus far received insufficient attention in the West is Indonesia — in terms of population, the fourth largest state in the world. Internal secession movements currently exist in Aceh, the Moluccas Islands, and Irian Jaya. In addition, tensions remain over the recent independence of East Timor, and ethnic conflict is of real concern in Kalimantan where, since 1998, the indigenous Dayak communities have launched brutal assaults on Madurese migrants.

In the midst of this tumult, what is required, some observers maintain, is a stable and predictable pattern of multilateral-based diplomacy to manage rivalry and reduce tensions. Prior to the onset of the 1997-98 Asia-Pacific financial crisis, much diplomatic and scholarly opinion held that ASEAN could provide the basis for a new era in regional security management. In particular, its pan-Pacific offshoot, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), was invested with high hopes. Established in 1994, the ARF, as a heterogeneous multilateral institution, was intended to address regional issues in an ostensibly transformed post-Cold War era. Before the crisis struck, the ARF, it was maintained, would extend the harmonious and inclusive practices of the ASEAN way across the Pacific. By bringing together both the ASEAN states and a disparate group of dialogue partners including China, Japan, the Unites States, Australia, and the European Union in nonconfrontational discourse, it was hoped that the security of the Asia-Pacific would be guaranteed through process-oriented confidence building.

The ARF gained many admirers in scholarly and policymaking circles. Many saw it as a novel experiment in cooperative security, one that posed a challenging alternative to the supposedly excessively rigid, legalistic, and treaty-oriented norms of Western-style diplomacy. The limitations, indeed the illusion, of this nonbinding, consensus-oriented approach were graphically exposed by the aforementioned economic crisis. By late 1998, even voices in some of ASEAN’s more heavily censured media began to acknowledge that it had played a negligible role in mitigating the effects of the economic and social implosion of member states and the manifold political problems to which this gave rise. Not surprisingly, the impotence of both ASEAN and the ARF in the face of financial meltdown and accompanying political turmoil has caused analysts to rethink their once enthusiastic endorsement of regional multilateralism.

Recently, the notion of a “Concert of Asia” has been canvassed as an alternative to the simplistic belief in the virtues of multilateral diplomacy. The concert idea implicitly or explicitly takes as its model the Concert of Europe, which lasted from 1815 to 1854. Conceived after the fall of Napoleon, the concert was a coercive diplomatic-security institution in which Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, and later France managed the European order in a manner consistent with their perceived interests in upholding the internal stability and territorial integrity of the continental state system. In recent years, the concert has attracted the attention of numerous observers. Professor Amitav Acharya, for example, who until the economic crisis in 1997 was a proponent of ASEAN’s informal style of multilateral diplomacy, has recently proposed the concert model for contemporary Asia. Writing in the Autumn 1999 edition of Survival, published by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, he noted that the recent occurrence of bilateral summitry between the region’s four “great powers”—the United States, China, Japan, and Russia—could, like the Concert of Europe, be formalized into a system that is able to contain rivalry, maintain order, and preserve the peace.

Some of the urgency that would seem to attend the desire for a new security system in the Asia-Pacific surely stems from discontent with current security arrangements, which can fairly be described as basing peace and stability in the region on a unipolar distribution of power predicated on American preeminence. This view does not, of course, sit well in any number of quarters. French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, referring to the United States as a “hyperpower,” has expressed dissatisfaction with what he believes are American pretensions to dictate the global agenda for the twenty-first century. More recently, the People’s Daily in China, reflecting the views of the Chinese leadership, slammed an official White House report that called for American global leadership in the new century, saying that “leadership” in this respect is synonymous with American “hegemony.”

As the Chinese and French reactions show, the desirability of a unipolar distribution of global power is a contentious matter. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the French, Chinese, and Russians have regularly called for a return to a multipolar system reminiscent of that which existed in nineteenth century Europe. Hence, perhaps, the renewed interest in and enthusiasm for basing security on a concert of powers in Asia. On the surface this may seem a plausible idea. Closer examination, however, reveals such advocacy to be based on a suspect historical interpretation of the Concert of Europe and a less than certain grasp of the realities of Asia-Pacific security dynamics, which render highly questionable the applicability of the concert to contemporary Asia. In fact, a close examination of the nineteenth century multipolar concert system reveals that a skewed distribution of power in Washington’s favor, both globally, but especially in the Asia-Pacific, has much to recommend itself.

Security challenges in the Asia-Pacific

C oncert of Asia supporters contend that a concert system has a number of desirable attributes. First, it is asserted that regional crisis situations can be more satisfactorily resolved by relying on bilateral and multilateral consultations between the great powers that constitute a concert. Second, the argument is made that regional stability can best be maintained by obtaining prior agreement among concert members that any territorial change requires great power consent. Third, we are led to believe that great power conflict will be moderated in a concert system since a crucial requirement for such a system is that the principle of equality should characterize great power relations.

How would a concert system work in Asia? Basically, contentious issues would be highlighted for resolution by the great powers, which would then bring their prestige and power to bear in resolving them. Two current security problems — the Korean Peninsula and nuclear proliferation in South Asia — are often singled out as candidates for a Concert of Asia to manage. However, logically speaking, a number of other issues could qualify for concert management. A preliminary list might include the following: China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea; Russian and Chinese proliferation of military technology to “rogue” regimes; the possible deployment of a U.S. theatre missile defense system in Asia; and the resolution of various insurgency-secessionist movements that litter the region.

The concert idea has been taken seriously by policymakers on both sides of the Pacific. In the United States, the idea won support from the Clinton administration. Indeed, the Clintonian Asian policy of establishing a strategic partnership with China and courting India, even while buttressing traditional alliances, can be seen as moving the United States toward concert-type arrangements in Asia. Ardor for a concert system in Asia was reflected in the views of Susan Shirk, Clinton’s deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, who argued that while “achieving a full-fledged Asia-Pacific Concert of powers will be difficult,” nevertheless, “an effort to forge a Concert should be undertaken even if it is unable to reach the ambitious standard of the nineteenth century Concert of Europe and achieves only ad hoc multilateralism or regular consultations among the powers.” Enthusiasm for such views has not been limited to the Western side of the Pacific. High-level Asian officials such as Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Hu Jintao, Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and former Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto have supported the idea of the major powers in the Asia-Pacific establishing a condominium to settle regional security issues.

Out of time, out of place

The fundamental problem of international relations revolves around the issue of how to establish peaceful methods of economic and political change. Is a Concert of Asia the best instrument available to accomplish this task? In this respect, the debate on the viability of a Concert of Asia can profit from critical scrutiny of the nineteenth century Concert of Europe model and its putative relevance to the contemporary Asia-Pacific region.

Despite the claims of contemporary enthusiasts, the Concert of Europe was not, in fact, primarily an exercise in the management of change. It was an attempt to protect the old dynastic order against the “dangerous” democratic forces unleashed by the French Revolution. The crushing of popular uprisings across Europe in 1848 was an example of the concert in action. But Concert of Asia advocates present a concert as if it were an institution facilitating mutual self-restraint, benignly akin, say, to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Given that the Concert of Europe had as much to do with the suppression of domestic disorder as the preservation of peace between its members, the doubtful relevance of the idea to Asia is at once clear.

In this respect, advocates of a concert system for Asia overlook an important ingredient that accounts for what is said to be its success in nineteenth century Europe, namely, the homogeneous nature of the continent’s political regimes. The fact that all the major powers of Europe were monarchies, the ruling families often being related to each other through intermarriage, gave these states a shared interest in the preservation of the status quo. By contrast, in Asia there exists a plurality of regimes (as well as a host of ethnic, religious, and other divisions) that do not provide for a similarity of outlook. American liberalism, for instance, sits ill with China’s authoritarianism, Japan’s sclerotic political corporatism, and Russia’s faltering experiment in oligopolistic-based democracy.

This illustrates a key problem for a Concert of Asia. For it to have any meaning, a concert must have rules. States must agree to restrain their ambitions, to refrain from actions that would destabilize the region, and to support each other in times of crisis. A commonality of interest is essential if a concert is to succeed. To maintain an Asia-Pacific Concert, the leaders of China, the United States, Japan, and Russia must be willing to agree to preserve largely intact the status quo at both the domestic and international levels.

One is unlikely to find much consent for these terms. China may wish to preserve its domestic order but would never agree to be constrained internationally. It will not accept restrictions over its policies toward, say, Taiwan or on the rate of the People’s Liberation Army’s military modernization. Nor is it probable that the Chinese would indefinitely support the continued American military presence in the region, particularly if the U.S. seriously moves to extend its theater missile defense system to Asia while continuing to thwart Beijing’s ability to bring Taiwan back into its fold.

Conversely, while the United States may see some virtue in adhering to the current international status quo, it is unclear that the necessary domestic support for this position can be sustained in the long run. This is especially true if Beijing continues its dismal record on human rights. In any event, American public opinion would not support Washington going to Beijing’s aid if Communist Party rule were ever seriously challenged. However, the need to maintain the legitimacy of a concert system would require such U.S. support. In accord with the terms of the Concert of Europe, the Russian army marched into Hungary in April 1849 in order to crush a secessionist rebellion and restore Austrian rule. Is it entirely realistic to expect the United States to assist the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in this way?

Of course, proponents of a Concert of Asia do not articulate such implications. Indeed, they may entirely repudiate any suggestion that the United States should, as in the hypothetical example above, provide succor to the CCP. The point is, though, that if one takes the example of the Concert of Europe as the starting point, then one has to defend the integrity of the model. One cannot simply pick and choose those aspects of the Concert of Europe deemed to be positive while ignoring all the other characteristics that made the system work in the first place. The fact is that the expectation of a concert system, as practiced in nineteenth century Europe, was that in the face of a regime change or any alteration in the regional order, the ultimate logic of the concert is that it must always be prepared to reinstate the status quo ante.

These difficulties merely preface many other questions about the viability of a Concert of Asia. Would a concert be acceptable to the smaller ASEAN nations who would be asked to follow the strategic diktat of states that they either suspect of harboring designs to impose traditional patterns of dominance (China) or have still not completely forgiven for acts committed more than half a century ago (Japan)? To reflect accurately the distribution of power in the region, would India and a united Korea not also have to be included in any concert? Would Beijing accept the inclusion of other regional rivals — India, for example — into the pact? Conversely, should a moribund Russia be included in any concert? Likewise, does Japan’s “self-containing” foreign policy make it a reliable candidate for membership?

All these questions arise even before we consider whether concert diplomacy would really resolve the potentially explosive disputes in both Northeast and Southeast Asia. Here we encounter even more thorny questions. How, for instance, would violations of the rules of the concert be handled? The coherence of a concert demands that the rules be enforced. As a practical matter, to have any claim to legitimacy, a concert would have to reach some agreement on what is arguably the world’s most contentious problem in regional security, namely, the Taiwan issue. Yet, regardless of any prior concert agreement on this issue, in a crisis situation, how would the United States react if China launched a preemptive attack on Taiwan or if Taiwan moved further towards declaring independence?

The numerous problems already identified underscore the difficulties in getting a concert to function effectively. Even those who argue for its application to Asia acknowledge that its European variant worked well for only eight years, from 1815 to 1823, before slowly degenerating into rival feuding that culminated in the Crimean War, when Britain and France declared war against Russia. Surely, the short-lived nature and debatable effectiveness of the Concert of Europe should itself provide grounds for skepticism about the relevance of such an idea to the Asia-Pacific.

In this respect, one might contrast the Concert of Europe to the most successful multinational security enterprise of recent times, one that has undoubtedly contributed to peace and stability in Europe for the best part of 50 years: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But this classic example of an alliance-based organization is premised on the preponderance of American power in Western Europe and corresponds little with notions of a concert-based multilateral security architecture.

Furthermore, those who espouse the concert system insist that one of the principles to which one must adhere is that of equality of status among those key powers who assume responsibility for maintaining regional order. Yet the main reason for NATO’s success and longevity is precisely that it is characterized by the dominance, both in decision making and military presence, of one single great power — the United States — that is, uniquely, external to the continent.

Therefore, if one suggests that schemes for a concert have proved relatively short-lived in Europe, often foundering on the rocks of political and national difference, then they are even less likely to be efficacious in a much more geographically disparate and heterogeneous continent like Asia. Moreover, if one can fairly criticize analysts for failing to fully appreciate the rarity and ephemeral nature of concert systems in European history, the same analysts seem also not to apprehend that Asia has even less experience of multipolarity. The only example of a multipolar system in Asia in modern times has been a negative one, covering the period of chaos, war, and colonialism from 1839 to 1945. There has been nothing resembling a concert in Asia. Instead, regional unipolarity has been the rule, reflected in the preponderance of Chinese power until the start of the Opium Wars in 1839 and, after a period of great turbulence, U.S. dominance in the post-1945 period.

The reality of American hegemony

The fact that a tradition of unipolarity has supplied stability in the region somewhat undermines the starting point of Concert of Asia advocates who believe that because the area is a hotbed of tension and rivalries, it needs to be managed through a multilateral framework. It does not. Currently, a benign American hegemony prevails in the Asia-Pacific and remains the key to managing change in a fluid economic and strategic environment. Moreover, there are solid theoretical and empirical bases on which to believe that this is a desirable state of affairs.

From a theoretical perspective, U.S. military preponderance reduces the intensity of the “security dilemma” in the region. The term refers to a vicious cycle in which defensive actions taken to maintain a state’s security are perceived as offensive threats and lead other states to take actions that reduce the first state’s security. It is a theory that has particular resonance in the Asia-Pacific, characterized as it is by traditional rivalries, most notably between China and Japan. In essence, a robust forward U.S. military presence mitigates the likelihood that the myriad of potentially explosive territorial and sovereignty disputes will be resolved in a manner that disrupts regional security. To cite but one example, it has been the U.S. commitment to Taiwan since 1950 that has prevented Beijing from launching a full-fledged invasion to reclaim the island. Decision makers in Beijing, who view Taiwan as part of their sovereign territory, have been deterred by the U.S. military presence in East Asia from taking what they see as defensive actions to recover Taiwan.

From an empirical perspective, American hegemony generally finds tacit and widespread support across the region, particularly among the ASEAN states that see the U.S. presence as necessary to counteract possible Chinese irredentism or a revival of Japanese militarism. For example, Singaporean Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew has been quoted as saying that “the golden rule for Asia-Pacific security” is that of using the American presence in the region to forestall the excessive growth and influence of either China or Japan. In recent years, such rhetoric has been backed up by Singapore’s extension of naval and air force facilities to the United States. Arguably, even the Chinese themselves, although they would prefer not to see the United States prevail in the long run, discreetly defer to American power, not least by tacitly recognizing America’s role in helping to check any prospective Japanese or Russian adventurism.

Finally, it may be added that the best way to keep the United States firmly anchored in the Asia-Pacific region is to accept rather than challenge its de facto hegemony. Notions of hegemony are not very consistent with United States self-perceptions, and a continued demonstration by the Asia-Pacific region that the American role is appreciated will go a long way in ensuring that there is no inadvertent scaling down of that presence. One need only consider the counterproductive 1992 decision by the Philippines to close down American bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay to appreciate the fact that American decision makers know when they are not welcome. A critic might argue that rising Filipino nationalism meant that a United States pullout was inevitable. Perhaps. However, such criticism reflects a failure to think strategically. The elation within some quarters of the Filipino population that attended the ejection of the American forces has been short-lived. It has since given way to a more sober assessment of regional security on the part of Manila’s national security bureaucracy. In particular, following the United States pullout, Manila has been experiencing problems with Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. These claims now stretch into the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile maritime Exclusive Economic Zone. China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea has led Manila to negotiate a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States. The Filipino example merely highlights the fact that, notwithstanding the Vietnam War interlude, it has been the American hegemonic impulse that has underpinned relative stability in Asia for the better part of two generations. Departing from that formula, as the Filipinos discovered, opens a Pandora’s box that should best be left closed.

Maintaining the pecking order

As the Bush administration formulates its policy toward Asia, it should keep in mind that American hegemony or leadership is not necessarily incompatible with a posture that provides incentives for security cooperation. Indeed, all means to provide stability in a potentially volatile region deserve a hearing. Perhaps, though, a distinction needs to be drawn between the more formalized versions of security cooperation such as a Concert of Asia — which imply over the course of an unspecified timeframe a diminution of American dominance in the region — and the very loose forms of security cooperation that are compatible with U.S. leadership in the Asia-Pacific. In this regard, recent calls by Zbigniew Brzezinski for greater security cooperation between the United States and the various players (including China) in the Asia-Pacific, implicitly premised as they are on the existing reality of American dominance, are far more viable than a Concert of Powers. They have the added merit of representing a practical attempt to think about ways to spread responsibility for the region’s security affairs, thus avoiding the issue of “overstretch” that has tripped up previous global hegemons. After all, why should the United States seek to deal unilaterally on every single issue that crops up? A process of regional consultation among America’s allies and willing partners to coordinate joint action towards specific problems may go some way in preserving American resources and capability to project power at a global level. The recent Australian intervention in East Timor that was backed up by American logistical support is one example of such an approach.

Relying on existing American bilateral alliances and loose diplomatic formations, however, is quite different from the notion of an explicit regional management system encapsulated in the idea of a Concert of Asia. On closer reading, the proposal for a formalized Concert of Asia along the lines of the Concert of Europe that some scholars endorse appears to have little to do with the intrinsic condition of the region’s international relations. Rather, it seems to have more to do with an attempt by some advocates to rehabilitate their notions of cooperative security. According to Professor Acharya, a modern Asian concert could be predicated on the same set of norms that underpin the ARF and function as an effective instrument of crisis management and preventive diplomacy. Thus, a concert can be viewed as a middle way between the realist balance-of-power assumptions they seemingly oppose and the multilateral security efforts they once extolled but which were revealed as ineffective during the recent Asian economic crisis. Notwithstanding the doubtful coherence of this advocacy, if multilateralists are suggesting that an informal framework of bilateral meetings between the region’s major powers constitutes a putative Concert of Asia, then one might inquire how this differs from routine diplomatic activity the world over. To garnish such activity with grandiose terms like “concert” is somewhat melodramatic.

In practical terms, the idea of a Concert of Asia has little to recommend it. The example of the Concert of Europe from which it draws sustenance was a regressive construct that inhibited change and arguably contributed to the later convulsions in the European order. Whatever the merits of the concert idea as a debating point, ultimately, the flaws of a short-lived system, the chief premise of which was to crush internal dissent, make it neither an appropriate model for Asia in the twenty-first century nor an inspiring advertisement of foreign policy enlightenment for the Bush administration.

An American grand strategy that seeks to preserve the United States’ position in the global hierarchy is both plausible and desirable. Provided American leadership is exercised wisely, there is every reason to expect that rather than balancing against the United States, the majority of the region’s major powers will “bandwagon” with, or otherwise defer to, the United States. If anything, the recent Sino-U.S. standoff on Hainan Island has only accentuated this phenomenon. Speaking in the midst of these events, one Southeast Asian diplomat pointedly noted: “This new incident shows that even with all its problems we still need the United States. Basically, our choice is between a hegemony in Washington or a hegemony in Beijing. We are still choosing the United States.” As it turns out, what is needed to manage the security in the Asia-Pacific is not a Concert of Powers but a clear pecking order, with the United States at the top.