Courtesy Reuters

Disorder Under Heaven

By Michael Auslin and Bilahari Kausikan

I appreciate Bilahari Kausikan’s review of my book The End of the Asian Century (“Asia in the Trump Era,” May/June 2017). He is correct to point out my focus on the economic, political, and security risks that may derail Asia’s future stability. But his misinterpretation of my argument at several points, although not fatal to an understanding the book, gives a misleading impression of some of its more significant claims. 

First, Kausikan writes that I misread history by asserting that Asia never recovered politically from the fall of the last stable political order, the Qing dynasty, in 1911, and that I suffer from “nostalgia for the traditional Chinese order.” But to identify a regional political vacuum after 1911 is far from indulging in nostalgia for a sclerotic, premodern dynastic system; rather, it is an acknowledgment of the failure of any successor state to create a system, ritual-based or otherwise, that most regional players interpret as legitimate and in which they willingly participate.

Second, Kausikan claims that I dismiss the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and initiatives such as the East Asia Summit as “insufficiently ambitious” in replacing the Qing order. Actually, I devote extensive space to asean but never claim that it was designed to replace the Qing order; moreover, examining its limitations is not the same as dismissing it. And Kausikan himself then acquits me of his own charge by reprinting my own words to the effect that asean never sought to become an Asian variant of the eu or a dominant political player.

Third, Kausikan makes grander claims for my “concentric triangles” initiative than I do. I never assert that it should become a new regional security architecture or that it should replace the current U.S. hub-and-spoke alliance system. Rather, I argue that Washington should update its current strategy and have a clearer objective for engaging on a multilateral basis with allies and partners alike, linking them in an endeavor to create more durable bonds of trust and cooperative activity so as to promote order and commonly accepted rules of behavior.

Finally, Kausikan writes that “it is delusional to think that the Chinese Communist Party” would interpret U.S. attempts to promote liberalization around the region, including in China, “as anything but a blatant attempt to undermine its rule.” I make that very claim myself, but argue that the United States should return, in part, to a values-based diplomacy, to help create a robust liberal community of interests. Engaging with the Chinese people, when possible, is part of that approach, and it is no less legitimate for being opposed by Beijing.

MICHAEL AUSLIN

Williams-Griffis Research Fellow in Contemporary Asia, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

KAUSIKAN REPLIES:

I thank Michael Auslin for his attempt to clarify his arguments. But they still leave me puzzled about what he considers a desirable East Asian order.

He writes in The End of the Asian Century that “in some ways, Asia has never recovered from the fall of the Last Emperor, the Qing ruler Puyi, in 1911 during the Chinese Revolution.” Later, he argues that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could not “ever be a replacement for the last stable political order in Asia, the Qing Empire.” Such statements certainly suggest nostalgia. If that was not his intent, he should have resisted using historical references that convey an air of erudition but get the facts wrong. 

In fact, the “last stable political order in Asia” was the U.S.-led one. Because that system is no longer sustainable in its present form, the issue that seizes East Asia is how—or whether—it can maintain peace and prosperity by reconciling the existing order with China’s legitimate ambitions.

Auslin correctly notes that “asean’s primary goal has always been to forge closer ties among its own members.” But most of his discussion of asean betrays a lack of understanding of the practical realities of East Asian diplomacy. This is evident from his references to the eu and nato, which he apparently considers desirable models. The issues are complex, but, in short, it is pointless to criticize a cow for being an imperfect horse.

Auslin argues that I make “grander claims” for his “concentric triangles” initiative than he does. But in his book, he writes, “At its best, the concentric triangles strategy will encourage Beijing to adapt its policies around accepted rules and norms.” That is a desirable outcome, but it is also surely a grand claim. Auslin argues that his design will give the United States a “clearer objective.” Maybe. But if it does, it will be one that increases the risks rather than reduces them, particularly if coupled with, as he advocates, a greater “commitment to reaching out to ordinary Chinese” to “provide an insight into democratic thinking, to encourage those voices in China struggling for civil society, and to let them know they are not alone.”

To think that China would not regard such actions as attempts at regime change and that they would not destabilize the region is delusional.