Setting the world on fire, one country at a time

With a wealth of reporting experience on the ground, including his time as BBC’s Beijing Bureau Chief, Humphrey Hawksley shows why an Eastphalian structure is emerging in Asia

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’s ‘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 his book ‘Asian Waters’, which is in my opinion his best work to date (in full disclosure he and I are friends and colleagues), Mr Hawksley presents more than just an in depth and comprehensive analysis of the region.

The author calls for an ‘Eastphalian’ understanding of the region and of the largest power there-China. With a wealth of reporting experience on the ground, including his time as BBC’s Beijing Bureau Chief, Mr. 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 sub title of the book, published only in America and 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 militarisation 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 four and a half decades later, the balance clearly favoured 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 a failed and failing government. The U.S. is not alone. The UK’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 is steadily 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, their advantages are rapidly decreasing. 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 greatest threat to society at large is a failed and failing government. The US is not alone. The UK’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 is steadily growing

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

The U.S. 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.

Many people have forgotten that the origin of the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Conference of 1922 was Britain’s concerns over the changing strategic conditions in the Pacific. It subsequently led to the naval arms control treaty. However, the treaty did not survive. And it’s not 1922 anymore.

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.

The writer is is Chairman of two private companies; senior adviser at the Atlantic Council; and Distinguished Senior Fellow and Visiting Professor at the US Naval War College in Newport Rhode Island. He Tweets @harlankullman

Published in Daily Times, June 28th 2018.