How to handle rise of China: a ‘treaty of Eastphalia’

In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Hundred Years War in Europe, creating the system of state-centric politics that has defined international relations since.

While a combination of the failed second Iraq War; the Arab Spring; the Trump administration “America First” policies; and the so-called re-emergence of great power competition has unleashed a cottage industry of pundits declaring that liberal democracy and a rules-based system of international norms are dead or dying, a better explanation has been offered by BBC award-winning correspondent Humphrey Hawksley.

In Asian Waters, Hawksley’s latest and his best book to date — in full disclosure, he and I are friends and colleagues — more than just an in-depth and comprehensive analysis of the region awaits the reader.

The author calls for an “Eastphalian” understanding of the region and of the largest power there — China. With a wealth of on-the-ground reporting from the region, including as BBC’s Beijing bureau chief, Hawksley shows why an Eastphalian structure is emerging in Asia. For both students and practitioners of foreign policy, his book is a must read. Indeed, the subtitle of the book published in America but not elsewhere, “The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion,” expresses the profound conundrum of how to deal with China’s annexation and militarization of a number of islets and reefs in the region in violation of international law.

But his idea for what I will call a “Treaty of Eastphalia” is a most innovative geostrategic suggestion. For the great majority of the 20th century (and obviously since the Westphalian Treaty), geopolitics has been Euro-Atlantic focused. And since World War I, ideological political competition has set liberal democracy against autocratic regimes. With the demise of the Axis powers in 1945 and then the Soviet Union 4 1/2 decades later, the balance clearly favored the West and its so-called values.

Sadly, in the 21st century, as I have argued in my last two books, the greatest threat to society at large is failed and failing government. The United States is not alone. The U.K.’s Theresa May and Germany’s Angela Merkel are leading failing governments. And throughout much of the rest of the world, the wholesale failures of government from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe have created violence and mayhem that are growing.

Against this background, the economic power of Asia led by China, along with its expanding military capacity and “belt and road” initiative that provides unprecedented global reach, access and leverage, is neutralizing and eroding the Westphalian system accelerated by globalization and the diffusion of power. While the United States and Europe in absolute terms are the dominant economic and military powers, relatively, the advantages are rapidly lessening. While NATO and the EU once were foundations in modernizing and advancing the Westphalian system, with Brexit, problems in governance noted above and the rise of nationalistic and autocratic political movements, as NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wryly noted in London last week, nothing is forever.

The Asia-Pacific region has no such security structure. SEATO failed. ASEAN is good for discussions but not for determining policies. The United States maintains a series of bilateral defense treaties. But as Hawksley critically observes, none has blocked China from expanding its defense perimeter by militarizing these dots in the South China Sea.

The United States would be wise to consider creating an Eastphalian security structure in cooperation with the regional states beginning with China. The first purpose would be to establish rules of the game to prevent conflicts from arising. Given the likelihood of a trade war given the administration’s misuse of tariffs to force concessions from its trading partners, the timing is not conducive. However, trade talks might lead to the opportunity for broader discussions.

While history does not repeat, the origins of the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Conference of 1922 were Britain’s concerns over the changing strategic conditions in the Pacific. That was transformed into the subsequent naval arms control treaty. Today is not 1922. And the treaty did not survive.

The point is that a catalyst may be necessary to generate a new Eastphalian regime that will lead to greater security and prosperity in Asia and the Pacific. Negotiations for averting a trade war could be just such a catalyst.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His latest book is “Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts.” Follow him @harlankullman.