Today's date:
Spring 2014

US and China Must Share Power and China Must Make Japan Feel Safe

Paul J. Keating was prime minister of Australia from 1991-1996.

SYDNEY—As power shifts between states, their relationships change, and when power shifts between great powers that changes the whole international order. Today in Asia we are living through and trying to manage the biggest shift in the distribution of wealth and power in a century—maybe the biggest in history. Everything we as leaders and governments work for—peace, stability, prosperity and even, in a nuclear armed world, the avoidance of disaster—depends on the great powers working together effectively to create a new Asian order that reflects and accommodates the new distribution of power, and at the same time preserves the essential features which have underwritten stability in Asia in recent decades.

This is going to make big demands on everyone. Middle and smaller powers have their roles to play in supporting, encouraging and warning the big players, but the biggest responsibilities fall on the great powers themselves. In Asia today that means, above all, America and China.

A lot of attention has been given to America’s responsibility to respond to China’s rise in a way that genuinely serves the wider interests of regional stability and contributes constructively to building a new order in Asia. That means being willing to accept that it can no longer exercise primacy in Asia as it has for so long. It must be willing to really share leadership with China.

But China too has equal responsibility for creating a new, stable and sustainable order in Asia. As it steps up to a larger leadership role it will at the same time need to be willing to accept and respect restraints on the way it uses its immense strength, because the acceptance of such restraints by great powers is the key to any successful and durable international order.

There is much evidence that China’s leaders understand all this very clearly. They have for a long time emphasized China’s desire to live in peace with its Asian neighbors: the phrases “peaceful rise,” “harmonious world” and most recently “new mode of great power relations” are well known to us all. But actions speak louder than words, and China’s neighbors are naturally looking to see how China actually uses its power.

All of us appreciate the political pressures on China’s leaders to win for China a place in Asia that the Chinese people feel is appropriate to their historical greatness and current power. It will take real strength from China’s leaders to persuade the Chinese people to accept wise limits to China’s power, just as it will for America’s leaders to do the same with their people.

We can’t say definitively what China’s responsibilities for building a new order will require of it, because the shape of that order is still too unclear. But we can mention three key issues which in my view would be essential for China to play its part in nurturing a new stable order as the foundation for peace in Asia.

First, and most obviously, China should continually reaffirm by word and by deed its commitment to repudiate the use or threat of force to settle disputes—just as other powers must do. Chinese friends will say that their adherence to this cardinal principle is clear and consistent. I would say that the work of reassurance is never done, that the stronger China becomes, the more it will need to reassure its neighbors about this, and that this will depend on deeds more than on words.

Second, China will do a great deal to help build a continuing stable order in Asia if it quite unambiguously welcomes and supports a continued strong US role in Asia. A stable Asian order can no longer be based on sole US leadership, but equally there can be no stable and peaceful future for Asia unless the US plays a large and active role, and unless China accepts that role. China’s leaders have said they do accept this, but there remains a lot of uncertainty about how China really sees America’s future in the region. Clarifying this would be a real contribution to a stable future for Asia.

Third, and perhaps hardest, is the question of Japan. Everyone understands the painful historical memories and the difficult contemporary questions that overshadow relations between East Asia’s two most powerful and important countries. But there can be no stable and peaceful order in Asia unless Japan is, and feels itself to be, secure. There are real questions about the future basis of Japan’s security—whether as a more “normal” country or not—but some durable basis for Japanese security must be found. It would make a big difference if China could quite plainly and unambiguously commit itself to this cardinal principle.

One might say that the underlying message here is that China’s most important responsibility right now is to explain more clearly and in more detail how it sees the new Asian order working, what role its sees itself taking, what roles it envisages for others, and how core norms and principles will be upheld. China’s concept of a “new model” is a step in this direction, but it is only a step and there is much more that can and should be said. China might say that the US has not yet set out any comprehensive vision of a new order, or even committed itself to help create one, and that is true. But someone has to take responsibility for that first big step. Let it be China. Nothing would do more to convince its neighbors that Asia’s future is bright as China’s power grows.