The twentieth century was an Atlantic century, while the twenty-first is going to be a Pacific one. It is a cliché, but like in every cliché, there is a truth in it. The tendencies go further than the well-known growth dynamics and demographics. Asia and the Pacific are quickly emerging scientific and research powerhouses, and the region’s competitiveness is the global standard. […] Whereas Europe used to be the most dangerous continent in the past century – yes, the origin of two world wars – the focus of security analysts and hard power strategic planners has recently moved towards developments in Asia and the Pacific. They do not yet observe a full-blown arms race, but in terms of military spending and confrontational psychology, the premises of an arms race are there.
Finally! Three years after the publication of my Occasional Paper at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, another – albeit very much more senior – European has realised just how important, from a geostrategic perspective, the Indo-Pacific region is going to become. As the twenty-first century draws on, it will become even more significant to world politics, perhaps even more than Europe was during the twentieth century. In other words, the Indo-Pacific will become the centre of global geopolitics, with the ‘Asian Mediterranean’ (from the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal) being the most important zone of all.
The rise of China, in particular, is going to have profound implications for the European Union. This is because Europeans will lose the security guarantee provided by the United States, just as Japan and Australasia lost the guarantee provided by the United Kingdom in the early 1900s when London was forced to recalibrate its maritime posture to confront Wilhelmian Germany. As America leaves Europe to counter China, Europeans will be left on their own, meaning they will have to finally provide for their own security (something that will probably make the current Greek financial crisis look like a quaint sideshow).
This point undermines Mr. Van Rompuy’s prescriptions for peace-building in the Indo-Pacific zone, which are predicated on the assumption that the encouragement of deeper commercial relations between the key powers will lead to a durable order. He claims: ‘It will…be key to continue deepening economic relationships within that region, so as to make a war as it were “materially impossible”.’ This could be called the doctrine of the pax commercium. This assertion is no doubt electrified by today’s dominant discourse on European integration, namely that the European Union is responsible for building peace and preventing war in Europe, by binding together European societies in a progressively more institutionalised set of relationships, undergirded by deep commercial transactions and cultural exchanges.
However, this perspective is naïve and wrong. Why? Because it ignores the role played by military power. After all, for there to be trade, there must first be order. And order can only be provided by a single dominant power, or a concert of powers whose interests intersect with one another (although the latter situation is so rare that it is hard to find a period in history where such a concert actually existed; even during the nineteenth century – when analysts point to the apex of the ‘Congress of Europe’ – there was a single superpower, in the form of the United Kingdom). As such, Europe is today peaceful not because of some pax commercium, but because Britain, France and the United States – the pre-eminent powers after the Second World War – cleverly engineered a geostrategy to enable constitutional democracy and commercial activity to flourish and reign supreme within the Euro-Atlantic area. While engineering that region, they armed themselves to the hilt with a calibrated set of terrestrial, maritime, aerial and – vitally – nuclear forces, in order to maintain complete military primacy. This armed strength was utilised to provide security to their allies and prevent any power from within from usurping their position, as well as to deter external powers like Soviet Russia from harming their or their allies’ interests. Without a doubt, had the British, French and Americans failed to constitute this benign environment with their military power, European integration would have remained nothing more than a pipe-dream.
Two conclusions: firstly, in Zurich, Mr. Van Rompuy rightfully argued that Europeans should start paying ‘higher political attention’ to Asian geopolitics, accompanied by greater European activity in the Indo-Pacific region. He is absolutely right: as I argued in 2009, Europeans need to pay far more attention to what happens there, for it will probably affect them as much as anyone else. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly – and where Mr. Van Rompuy is mistaken – Europeans should not assume that the European experience is in any way applicable to the Indo-Pacific zone (or anywhere else, for that matter). Unlike in Europe during the decade following the Second World War, there is no power today with the means or the will to provide the security environment in which commercial activity around Asia can flourish. China’s rise is already negating – and rapidly – the power of the United States, and China does not seem willing to live in a world crafted primarily by American hands. This, after all, is why there is a nascent arms race in the first place, as China seeks to gain autonomy and assert its interests.
Ultimately, Europeans should come to their senses. There is no such thing as a pax commercium devoid of military power; after all, if looked at over a longer time-frame, trade has not led to peace. Even though international trade has grown rapidly over the past five-hundred years, each century has been bloodier than the last. Instead, as Churchill would have no-doubt counselled, Europeans should look once again at the utility of their armed forces, particularly their ability to mount expeditionary operations in the Indo-Pacific zone, to protect their interests in the event of a regional conflict. They should also seek to deter wars between third powers through the threat of European intervention, and to ‘show the flag’ in order to build confidence among their ‘strategic partners’, some of whom should eventually be co-opted into a full alliance. In short, Europeans should stop their rapid de-militarisation and self-inflicted drive to irrelevance. And then they should work hard to reverse it.