Why Has Leadership in the Asia–Pacific Proved So Elusive?
Why Has Leadership in the Asia-Pacific Proved So Elusive?
Mark Beeson 0
0 University of Western Australia , Perth , Australia
Of the many things that distinguish what we now think of as the 'AsiaPacific', one of the most striking is the absence of effective regional leadership. The fact that there are a number of 'great powers' with potentially competing claims to leadership is one of the principal causes of overall leadership failure. The recent election of Donald Trump looks likely-whether by accident or design-to transform America's traditional relationship with East Asia and its role in the AsiaPacific, with potentially profound long-term consequences. This paper examines the possible implications of both the rise of China and the advent of the Trump era for regional development in general and leadership in particular. I suggest that the combination of China's reemergence and Trump's more instrumental attitude to international relations presents China with a possibly unique opportunity to reassert itself at the centre of regional, if not world affairs. Whether it has the capacity or the unequivocal desire to do so, however, is another question.
Rise of China
Of the many things that distinguish what we now think of as the ‘Asia–Pacific’, one
of the most striking is the absence of effective regional leadership
Given that this geographical area contains some of the most powerful and important
states in the world, this is rather surprising. Intuitively we might expect that a region
that includes the United States, China and Japan ought to be well placed to offer
effective and decisive leadership to other, less powerful states, given the economic
and strategic resources they have at their disposal. And yet, the fact that there are a
number of ‘great powers’ with potentially competing claims to leadership is one of
the principal causes of overall leadership failure: in the absence of some sort of
accommodation between the major states of the region, effective leadership, either
individual of collective is very difficult if not impossible
Adding to ‘the region’s’ problems is the fact that the very definition of the area
under consideration is contested, and subject to competing ‘visions’, initiatives and
depictions. Is the ‘Asia–Pacific’ really the most effective or ‘natural’ basis for
regional cooperation and/or leadership in the first place? Would a narrower
definition of the region such as East Asia or even the newly fashionable
‘IndoPacific’ actually be a more effective basis for cooperation, influence or even
coercion? For the reality is that all of these regional arenas have been characterized
by power projection, strategic tensions and even outright conflict at times. This
historical baggage helps to account for the lingering animosities and absence of trust
that makes any form of cooperation and coordination difficult, no matter how the
region in question is defined
Nevertheless, there have been moments when regional influence and
orderbuilding have occurred, and we may be seeing something of a renaissance in more
narrowly conceived forms of regional leadership remerging at the present juncture.
The so-called rise—or more accurately, the reemergence—of China as a major
power has the potential to provide leadership in the East Asian region in a way that
it did for hundreds, if not thousands of years
(Zhang and Buzan 2012)
. For this to
happen, however, the role and status of the United States—and to a lesser extent,
Japan—will have to be clarified and possibly redefined. This is what makes the
recent election of Donald Trump so significant: the Trump administration looks
likely—whether by accident or design—to transform America’s traditional
relationship with East Asia and its role in the Asia–Pacific, with potentially
profound long-term consequences.
This paper examines the possible implications of both the rise of China and the
advent of the Trump era for regional development in general and leadership in
particular. It does this by placing the discussion in historical context and by
exploring the nature of Chinese and American leadership at different periods. I shall
suggest that the combination of China’s reemergence and Trump’s more
instrumental attitude to international relations presents China with a possibly
unique opportunity to reassert itself at the centre of regional, if not world affairs.
Whether it has the capacity or the unequivocal desire to do so, however, is another
2 Putting Leadership in Historical and Geographical Context
At the outset it is important to recognize just how uncertain and contested the
definition of the region in question actually is. For most of human history it literally
made no sense to describe the region we now think of as ‘East Asia’ in that way.
The simple reality was that there was no ‘other’ against which to distinguish East
Asia. What connections there were with the rest of the world were tenuous, and the
well known sense of superiority on the part of China’s dynastic leaders encouraged
a complacent insularity that left them entirely unprepared to meet the challenge of
European imperialism. Before the economic and strategic expansion of the
European powers brought about the downfall in China’s own imperial system,
however, China had exercised a distinctive and enduring from of leadership in its
(Fairbank et al. 1965)
A number of comparative points are worth noting about the Tributary system in
particular. First, China’s dominance of its region not only lasted for hundreds, if not
thousands of years, but it assumed a particular and distinctive form. On the one
hand, it was relatively indirect and undemanding. Certainly there were important
and enduring cultural influences, such as the export of Confucianism in particular
, but the Chinese emperors demanded relatively little from their
notional subordinates, other than the acknowledgement of China’s superiority in
return. In this regard, as
has astutely noted, China’s style of imperial
rule stands in stark contrast to modern forms of domination: while China’s Tribute
system was notionally hierarchical, in reality its dominance was generally not
enforced and there was a good deal of equality in practice. The contemporary
Westphalian order of notionally similar sovereign states, by contrast, may be
predicated on the idea of equality, but in reality it has been anything but
and Sharman 2005)
. The contemporary international system is distinguished by high
levels of political, economic and strategic inequality that give rise to a hierarchical
state system in which some members are, to paraphrase George Orwell, decidedly
more equal than others.
The other striking features of the contemporary system of regional order—
whether East Asian or the more expansive Asia–Pacific—are that it has been
dominated by a comparatively new regional actor, and direct coercive power has
been a prominent feature of its engagement at times. Although the United States
may have initially been something of a reluctant imperialist
, it is
important to remember that when it announced its arrival as a regional actor by
compelling Japan to open up, it did so through naval power
. In the
twentieth century American international leadership has been far more
unambiguous and direct; a reality that was driven by the East Asia’s position as one of the
epicenters of the Cold War superpower struggle with the Soviet Union
The transformation of the international order that underpinned American
dominance in the middle of the twentieth century may have conferred a degree of
‘structural’ power and ascendancy on the United Stares
, but the way
it was exercised was far from pre-determined or universal. On the contrary, the
widely noted difference between America’s multilateral institution-building efforts
in Europe, and its bilateral hub-and-spokes relationships in East Asia, is striking and
had long term consequences for the region
(Beeson 2005; Hemmer and Katzenstein
. Not only did the US establish itself as the dominant power in the East Asia,
albeit primarily as an ‘off-shore balancer’, but it also made the emergence of
indigenous leadership much more difficult (Cha 2016): Japan was firmly established
as a subordinate state, while China was still an unimportant economic backwater on
the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. In such circumstances, the US provided a form of
‘long distance leadership’ for the non-communist states
, a position it
was prepared to defend via its direct participation in the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
The comparative point to emphasize, therefore, is that from the inception of
America’s hegemonic dominance of East Asia there was nothing remotely
comparable to the development of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),
much less the sort of institutionalization that would ultimately culminate in the
formation of the EU. ‘East Asia’ was simply a way of describing a geographical
region that included China, Japan, the divided Korean peninsula, the less powerful
states of Southeast Asia, and the anomalous island of Taiwan. In such circumstances
the possibility that there might be any form of region-wide leadership or even
collective action was null. Even when some of the Southeast Asian states formed the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), it was largely in response to the
geopolitical maneuvering of extra-regional powers. Equally importantly, ASEAN as
an institution was intentionally designed to have minimal influence over its
members and little capacity for effective leadership of Southeast Asia, much less the
wider East Asian region
In sum, therefore, the principal impact of American leadership in East Asia was
to nullify the emergence of any indigenous regional rival. And that was precisely the
intention, of course. Apologists for this course of action claim that American policy
has contributed to regional stability, without which East Asia might have descended
(Berger 2000; Feigenbaum 2011; Friedberg 2011)
. Whatever one thinks
of such arguments which, it should be noted, emanate primarily from the US itself,
there is little question that the net effect of American hegemony was to inhibit the
rise of regional East Asian powers capable of providing leadership collectively or
individually. Even in the more broadly conceived Asia–Pacific region, in which the
US was itself ostensibly the leading player, an American aversion to constraining
multilateral institutions meant the successive administrations evinced little
enthusiasm for organizations such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)
forum or the potentially important but underperforming ASEAN Regional Forum
The combination of an enduring pattern of American foreign policy that was
predicated on discouraging indigenous regional leadership, a range of institutions
that were consciously designed to have little leverage over their members, and
unresolved historical animosities and rivalries that effectively thwarted the very
possibility of regional cooperation much less collective leadership, have meant that
East Asia and/or the Asia–Pacific have been largely incoherent and directionless.
And yet the region—however it is defined—is in a state of flux. The rise of China
and the possible decline—relatively, at least—of the US has generated a degree of
uncertainty about America’s traditional role an off-shore power
, and raised the prospect that China might once again reassume its
regional leadership position. Before trying to assess how the dynamics of great
power rivalry might play themselves out and what impact this might have on
regional leadership, it is useful to put the evolving regional and world order in some
sort of theoretical and comparative context.
3 The New World (Dis)Order
Only a couple of decades ago some people were predicting that an era of unipolarity
had arrived in which the United States had achieved a position of dominance that
was unmatched since ancient Rome. The claim was that this power would not only
endure for the foreseeable future, but it would bring about an era of stability. All
that was required for unipolarity to endure, it was suggested, was
maintaining the expectation on the part of other states that any geopolitical
challenge to the United States is futile. As long as that is the expectation,
states will likely refrain from trying, and the system can be maintained at little
(Wohlforth 1999: 40)
Even before the Iraq crisis undermined the foundations of American dominance,
this argument looked implausible
. It would, however, require the
events of September 11 and the disastrously ill-conceived response of George W
Bush to demonstrate just how fragile and transient the ‘unipolar moment’ actually
. Even if we accept that the Bush administration’s policies
unnecessarily undermined America’s material power and ideational authority, the
idea that the US would be able to maintain an unchallenged hegemonic dominance
indefinitely looked like rather complacent wishful thinking on the part of American
scholars in particular.
In retrospect it is possible to understand why so many appeared to be persuaded
that American dominance the particular world order over which it presided and
which it had done so much to create would endure. Not only did it seem as if
ideological alternatives had disappeared along with the Soviet Union, but earlier
claims about possible American demise during the 1980s had come to seem
overblown and simply wrong
. The renaissance of the American
economy in the 1990s, the decline of Japan as competitive force, and the apparent
absence of a credible geo-strategic rival led some to conclude that American
primacy was assured—seemingly forever, according the likes of Wohlforth.
In one of the great ironies of recent world history, however, American unipolarity
was not only short-lived, but the US was actually instrumental in bringing about its
own downfall and encouraging the rise of competing powers. In much the same way
that American hegemony and the creation of an open economic order had facilitated
the economic renaissance of Japan, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was
catapulted to the forefront of world economic development in large part as a
consequence of Americans actions
. By imposing very demanding
conditions on China when it tried to join the World Trade Organization (WTO),
opposition to market-oriented reform in China was curbed and integration into the
global capitalist economy turbo-charged economic development
result was the inadvertent creation of genuine peer competitor and long-term threat
to American dominance.
It was not simply the rise of China’s material power that had undermined
American dominance, however. The so-called ‘global financial crisis’ had a major
impact on the relative standing of the US and China
. Two points are
worth emphasising about the GFC as a consequence. First, it was no such thing. In
reality the ‘global’ crisis only had a dramatic impact on the US and the European
Union—at least initially. The major impact on the US in particular was not only
material, however and this leads to a second point: the authority, standing and
attractiveness of the so-called Anglo-American model of capitalism was
dramatically undermined by the GFC. This loss of ideational influence was at least as
important in changing the relative standing of the US and China as was any direct
loss of material importance. Although the impact on the American economy was
real and enormously damaging, the sense that the US’s approach to economic
management was deficient in comparison to other states had an enduring impact on
its position. Indeed, not only was China relatively unaffected by the GFC thanks to a
massive and very effective package of domestic stimulus measures (that also kept its
neighbours afloat), but Chinese policymakers also saw the GFC as an opportunity to
take advantage of America’s comparatively diminished position
Even if China’s efforts to challenge America’s strategic position and institutional
ascendancy does not achieve the results some fear, they are emblematic of a new
international order. The position of the US is widely seen as diminished, at least in
relative terms if not absolutely. The international order that the US was instrumental
in creating, and which allowed it to express a distinctive and highly effective form
of institutional power, is at best under strain, at worst, beginning to unravel
et al. 2015)
. Declining American power and influence were seen as being real
possibilities even before the election of Donald Trump
. What is so
potentially transformative about the Trump administration is that he and many of his
advisors have little time for—or possibly understanding of—the benefits that flowed
form an effective multilateral order. The transformation or diminution of American
leadership opens up a political space that others could—individually or
collectively—seek to fill
. It is one thing for an opportunity to present
itself; it is quite another for someone to seize it, however.
4 Are There Alternatives to American Leadership?
Even critics of American foreign policy and its impact would have to concede that,
if nothing else, American hegemony provided a degree of stability and predictability
to the operation of what might be broadly described as the international system. This
is not to ignore the often contentious and coercive aspects of America’s
geostrategic policies, or the sometimes self-serving nature of its geoeconomic policies,
either. However, for all its possible flaws, inconsistencies and unevenness
‘American hegemony’ provided an enduring backdrop against which more
evanescent issues played themselves out
. The question now is
whether—assuming the doubters and critics are correct and American power is in
relative or absolute decline
, any other country or countries can fill the
space the US has occupied for half a century or so. Before trying to decide whether
the China or any other combination of states or institutions can lead, it is worth
reminding ourselves what ‘leadership’ consists of and what would be required if
some other power of powers were to take on the mantle.
In one of the most influential analyses of leadership,
that an absence of leadership had directly contributed to the Great Depression and
the subsequent outbreak of World War 2. The principal claim here was that for the
international system, especially its economic components, to function effectively, a
leader needed to provide a number of essential ‘collective goods’. Without an open
international economic order, stable currencies and a market of last resort, states
risked falling back into the sort of mutually destructive policies that had brought
about the Great Depression. It was the failure of the US to provide leadership
between the wars that had brought about precisely this result.
The reason that the US ought to have played this role, in Kindleberger’s view,
was that it had become the most important economic actor in the international
system, and it was therefore incumbent upon it to play the sort of system stabilizing
role that Britain had done before World War 1 fatally undermined its position and
that of Europe more generally. The reason that the international economy got into so
much trouble and ultimately led to a geopolitical cataclysm was that the US failed to
assume the leadership role that Britain was no longer capable of fulfilling. On the
contrary, an isolationist America between the wars actually exacerbated economic
and political problems, rather than mitigating them. The key questions at the present
moment, therefore, are firstly about whether the US any longer has the willingness
or the capacity to play such a role in the future, and secondly, whether any other
state or states could replace it should it fail to provide such leadership.
4.1 Is There a Leadership Vacuum?
If there is one thing on which most observers seem to agree, it is that Donald
Trump’s administration represents a major departure from previous American
foreign policy positions
. Trump’s supposedly ‘transactional’
approach to foreign policy, in which he seeks to make deals that privilege American
interests above all else would seem to be the very antithesis of the sort of leadership
that Kindleberger and others think is a prerequisite for a stable, rules-based
international order. And in many ways it is, of course: the apparent contempt which
many of Trump’s advisors appear to have for multilateral institutions and the liberal
principles that notionally underpin them mark a very different approach to, if not an
abdication of leadership as it has traditionally been understood in the US
And yet we need to recognize that leadership, even the ‘hegemonic’ variety, need
not be based on either multilateralism or on the enthusiastic consent of the
subordinate powers. On the contrary, coercive forms of international leadership
have arguably been more common than the consensual sort
the construction of a complex, interlocking network of multilateral institutions in
the period following the Second World War was a distinctive and novel feature of
the international order the US did so much to create. It is worth noting that the
Soviet Union’s style of leadership was both less institutionalized and less
consensual. While the US may also have intervened directly and coercively in
the affairs of client states on occasion, on the whole its dominance was widely
supported by its powerful allies in particular. Even ‘critical’ and/or Marxist scholars
have long recognized that American hegemony was successful in large part because
it provided benefits to many countries and consequently had either their enthusiastic
support or grudging compliance
. The point to emphasize is that the
‘transaction costs’ involved in maintaining a US-centric international order were
significantly reduced by an absence of significant opposition to American
What is unclear at this stage is firstly, whether the Trump administration will
significantly undermine the existing array of multilateral institutions by failing to
support them; secondly, how much this will matter even if they do; and thirdly
whether another state or states could actually fill the leadership gap that is
apparently being vacated by the US. None of these questions is easily answered, not
least because the Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda is apparently highly
contested internally and consequently very difficult to predict (
. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify some important variables
that will help to determine not just the impact of the Trump administration, but also
the constraints and opportunities that may confront any state or grouping that seeks
to replace it.
One of the most widely noted characteristics of the international organizations
(IOs) that have become such an important and numerous feature of the
contemporary international system is that once established, they have the capacity
to take on a life of their own
(Barnett and Finnemore 1999)
. Indeed, it is not just
formal inter-governmental IOs that have become prominent and functionally
necessary parts of the global economy in particular, but an array of private sector
actors and institutions, without which even limited ‘global governance’ would be
(Cutler et al. 1999)
. There are two points to emphasize to emphasize as
a consequence. First, even if the Trump administration fails to support or appreciate
the importance of this dense institutional architecture that exists outside of
individual states, this does not mean that it will disappear. On the contrary, it may
actually become more important as other states and non-government actors seek to
preserve a functionally important institutional infrastructure.
The second point to emphasize in this context, therefore, is that any state or states
seeking to supplant the American position will either have to work within the
existing order or provide a credible alternative. Given that many of the regulatory
regimes in specific issue areas such as finance, insurance, health and the
environment are now frequently maintained by non-state actors
, this would be a major challenge and one that might be expected to
induce a good deal of push-back from existing agencies. There is, in short, a degree
of path dependency to the existing order that will make radical change unlikely,
even if the Trump administration fails to support the status quo. And yet the
apparent unwillingness of the Trump regime to continue providing to sorts of
collective goods that are traditionally associated with successful leadership has led
some observers to claim that East Asians have the capacity to develop a political
presence that mirrors what many see as the inexorable shift in power for ‘West’ to
5 Can Asia Lead?
Somewhat surprisingly it is not the giants of the Asian region that are generally
considered to have the capacity to provide leadership, but some of its relative
minnows. Indeed, it is the relatively non-threatening nature of ASEAN’s states that
makes their possible leadership potentially attractive, according to some observers.
: 862–3), for example, suggests that
although Japan, China increasingly and India to a lesser extent all have the
resources to lead, all still suffer from a deficit of regional legitimacy deriving
from past histories (the Japanese wartime role, Chinese subversion and Indian
diplomatic arrogance, dating back to the Bandung conference). Moreover,
their mutual rivalry prevents the Asian powers from assuming regional
leadership singly or collectively. Hence, regional leadership rests with a group
of the region’s weaker states.
ASEAN is ‘in the driving seat’ as far as regional leadership is concerned, the
argument goes, because there is an absence of great power leadership or the sort of
collective leadership that a concert of powers might provide
. In such
circumstances, the great powers are happy to give ASEAN a greater role.
While there is clearly something in the idea that great power rivalries have
stymied collective or individual great power leadership in East Asia—or even the
Asia–Pacific, for that matter—it is much more debatable that ‘lesser power
leadership’ follows as a consequence. On the contrary, ASEAN as an organization
has been notoriously feeble when it comes to offering decisive direction to its own
members, let alone the wider East Asian region
. The one example of
effective diplomatic leadership that is routinely trotted out in support of ASEAN’s
diplomatic capabilities is the resolution of the Cambodian crisis in the 1980s. But as
has been pointed out, one reason that ASEAN played a seemingly effective role was
that it suited the great powers’ own interests for it to do so (Jones and Smith 2001).
Likewise, when the economic crisis of the late 1990s laid a number of the
ASEAN economies low, ASEAN as an organization, much less an effective crisis
manager was nowhere to be seen. In reality the US, in cooperation with key extra
regional organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), did the
heavy lifting in addressing the crisis and managing its aftermath. Even where there
was a belated regional response, it was led—rather ineffectually—by Japan and then
latterly China. In neither case did mechanisms of regional cooperation prove terribly
effective or decisive, however. Indeed, even the much-ballyhooed inauguration of
the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI) of currency swap arrangements, which some
observers took to be a landmark in effective regional cooperation, was not actually
utilized in the GFC. To be fair, China’s proactive response to the GFC meant that a
currency crisis and/or economic downturn was largely averted, but this only serves
to highlight the limited impact of a series of regional institutions and organizations
that subscribed to the paralyzing logic of the ‘ASEAN Way’ of consensus,
facesaving and compromise.
Admirers of ASEAN’s abilities and potential for leadership like to emphasize its
supposed capacity for promoting particular forms of behavior and mediating, if not
generating norms, that can influence the way more powerful states behave. This
‘socialization’ process, the argument goes, is a distinctive and important part of
contemporary international relations in which less powerful states can paly a more
prominent ideational role. In an era when inter-state conflict has declined and in
which material power seems less efficacious, there would seem to be something in
this. And yet, it is clear that there are limits to this process.
Faced with what is arguably the biggest security challenge of its 50-year
existence, ASEAN has been unable to come up with a coherent, collective position
on how to respond to China’s increasingly assertive claims to much of the South
China Sea. Equally importantly, China appears to have been entirely unaffected by
ASEAN’s norms or the actions of its individual neighbors, unless being entirely
comfortable with ASEAN’s undemanding diplomatic standards is considered to be
evidence of socialization. In reality, China has skillfully divided the ASEAN
grouping of the South China Sea issue by effectively buying the support of
Cambodia and to a lesser extent Laos
(Kynge et al. 2016)
. The consequence has
been that it has been impossible to reach a consensus position on this more critical
Even if it is proving increasingly difficult for ASEAN to fulfill a leadership role,
as far as China’s recent actions might be construed as designed to fill this gap. At
one level, it is plain that China is applying a form of coercive and/or instrumental
foreign policy that is undoubtedly beginning to influence regional economic and
strategic outcomes. Whether this constitutes leadership is a moot point.
: 388) suggests that international leadership should be thought of as:
the ability to project a set of political ideas or principles about the proper or
effective ordering of politics. It suggests the ability to produce concreted or
collaborative actions by several states or other actors. Leadership is the use of
power to orchestrate the actions of a group toward a collective end.
China’s actions in the South China Sea and its efforts to apply a divide and rule
policy among ASEAN’s members are clearly unlike the persuasive and cooperative
approach Ikenberry has in mind. On the contrary, China has until recently had little
‘soft power’ or diplomatic leverage on which to draw to influence other states
(Beeson and Xu 2015)
; but this may be changing. Indeed, in what may prove to be
an important indicator of the multidimensional nature of China’s evolving foreign
and strategic policies its policymakers have recently unveiled a number of ambitious
‘grand strategic’ initiatives that may offer both an alternative to the institutional
order that the US did so much to create, as well as a blueprint for consolidating
China’s material importance to Asia as a whole
5.1 Can China Lead Asia?
It is important to remember that the very idea of the PRC providing leadership for
the East Asian region would have been considered as absurd by many observers
until relatively recently. After all, only 30 years or so ago, China was regarded as an
underdeveloped, largely agrarian backwater of no economic importance. What
‘leadership’ credentials China did have before the era of reform initiated by Deng
Xiaoping were largely confined to the export of revolutionary and destabilizing
(van Ness 1970)
. At one level, then, ‘China’ clearly has undergone a
profound reorientation in its foreign policy behavior and its officials plainly have
undergone a process of socialization
. At another level, however, the
changes in China’s foreign policy may be less dramatic than they seem. The pursuit
of ‘national interests’ continues to be the dominant theme in China’s foreign policy
(Lampton 2008; Shambaugh 2013)
; it is the means of pursuing them that has
undergone the greatest change.
One of the most important developments in recent China’s recent foreign policy
agenda, which will help determine whether it can lead, has been its increased
centralization as part of series of reforms initiated under the leadership Xi Jinping.
Until relatively recently, China’s notoriously opaque foreign policy process was
subject to numerous, often conflicting pressures and influences, that made it
unpredictable and seemingly ad hoc
(Jakobson and Knox 2010)
. The concentration
of power under Xi as the ‘core leader’ is one response to this issue
, and one of the consequences has been the articulation of an
ambitious and integrated program that is designed to transform China’s diplomacy
and international standing, and to consolidate the Chinese economy’s position at the
center of regional development and production (Wang 2016).
The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) scheme and the associate Asia Infrastructure
Investment Bank (AIIB) could, if successfully implemented, be the Asian
equivalent of the Marshall Plan, with a similar sort of geopolitical and geoeconomic
impact (Miller 2017). Simply put, the highly ambitious OBOR project will directly
link China to markets in Europe via key regional states in Central, South and
Southeast Asia. The AIIB will be instrumental in providing the finance for much of
this project, providing an alternative institutional order to the one dominated by the
US for so long, while simultaneously making many of it neighbors even more
economically dependent on China in the process. Under such circumstances, there is
simply no doubt that China’s influence and material importance to much of the
region will be significantly enhanced. The fact that key allies of the US such as the
UK and Australia decided to join despite the Obama adminstration asking them not
to is indicate of how much economic leverage China already has
Nevertheless, it is one thing to have economic leverage and even the potential to
create new institutions, it is quite another to have a vision for an alternative
international order. As Shambaugh (2013: 153) points out, ‘China is more confident
and active in international organizations but still exhibits a ‘‘defensive’’ posture in
many negotiations. It is a nation that knows what it is against but not necessarily
what it is for’. Even the so-called ‘Beijing consensus’ and the ‘Chinese model of
development’ remain under-defined, very difficult to replicate, and concepts that the
Chinese government itself appears to be ambivalent about the reluctant to promote
as part of an explicit foreign policy agenda
(Breslin 2013; Ferchen 2013)
some observers fear that China is ‘is so wedded to the status quo that China will
forestall important reforms that are desperately needed’ (Kennedy 2012: 11).
Paradoxically enough, however, in the aftermath of the election of Donald
Trump, China has emerged as an unexpected champion of ‘globalization’. In part,
this reflects a recognition on the part of China’s leaders that the country has been
one of the principal beneficiaries of an open international economic order. At the
same time, however,
in particular clearly sees an opportunity for China to
reposition itself as precisely the sort of ‘responsible stakeholder’ that some have
long called for
. At a time when the Trump administration seems to
be abandoning the traditional American role in favor of a more instrumental,
nationalistic approach to trade and even security policy
(Browne 2017; Hodge
, Chinese officials have been quick to seize the moment and the initiative.
There are, however, continuing constraints confronting China that raise real
questions about its ability to offer a leadership at the regional, much less the global
level. First, the extant international order will not be easily replaced, nor will
America’s role within it. The fact remains that the US is still the world’s preeminent
economic and military power, albeit one with diminished status and damaged
authority. Second, China has shown little desire or capacity to articulate an
alternative vision for the international system, thus far, and seems willing to work
within existing institutional architecture and avoid the costs associated with
(Wang and French 2014)
. Third, leaders need followers, and at this
stage—despite an apparently growing diplomatic influence in Southeast Asia—it
has few allies and friends. Indeed, the fourth point to make is that China’s
continuing pursuit of its own nationalistic goals, especially its claims in the South
China Sea dispute, look certain to make its future relations and role divisive and
6 Concluding Remarks
The most striking feature of the East Asian region since the Second World War is
that indigenous leadership has been in short supply. Even before this, what
leadership attempts there had been were abortive and imperialistic
rather than the sort of consensually determined collective actions envisaged by
admirers of either ASEAN or the supposedly benign form of long distance
leadership offered by the US. The causes of this local vacuum are not difficult to
discern: institutional limitations on the part of ASEAN and its offshoots, especially
when combined with unresolved historical and contemporary regional tensions and
rivalries, have meant that no state or intergovernmental organization has been able
to provide effective leadership. Even more tellingly, however, America’s postwar
dominance of the region and the ultimately divisive hub and spoke strategic
architecture have meant that challengers to it hegemonic position have been
. Effective leadership form within Asia has been all but
It is this historical pattern of American dominance that makes the advent of the
Trump administration so significant. It is far from clear that the new regime in
Washington is committed to play the same sort of role that it has done as an
offshore balancer, or give alliance the sort of guaranteed support that is thought by
many observers to have contributed to relative stability in the region. Whatever one
thinks about the claims made about the old order that the US underpinned and
largely shaped, it is entirely possible that something different may be emerging: the
rise of an increasingly assertive China and the more transactional, less principled
approach of the Trump regime means that many of the taken for granted features of
the Asia–Pacific and East Asian regions may be in doubt and up for renegotiation.
In this rather febrile and uncertain atmosphere it is foolhardy to make predictions
but, as I have suggested, there are still major obstacles facing China—or anyone
else, for that matter—if they hope to play a decisive leadership role in the region.
Perhaps the best hope, both for more effective collection action and for the stability
of the region is that some sort of accommodation can be reached in which both a
rising China, the concerns of other less powerful regional states, as well as a
possibly declining hegemon can be accommodated. Unlikely as it may seem to
some observers, especially in the US, it may be a lot more attractive than the
alternative. The history of East Asia is a sobering reminder of just what can happen
when leadership is contested and coerced.
Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia. Before joining
UWA, he taught at Murdoch, Griffith, Queensland, York (UK) and Birmingham, where he was also head
of department. He is the founding editor of Critical Studies of the Asia Pacific.
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