The China Choice

Hugh White, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power (Melbourne, Australia, Black Inc., 2013).

By Andrew Reynolds, 12 June 2014

ChinaChoiceIn ‘The China Choice[1]’, Hugh White tackles the problem he sees as the most pressing issue in international relations today: namely, how America should respond to a rising China. White is well credentialed to write on this topic. As Professor of Strategic Studies at Australian National University and with a background as a defence analyst for the Office of National Assessments[2] (ONA), White has experience as both a theorist and practitioner of foreign policy.

Moreover, White’s contribution to the policy debate over the US-China relationship is timely. Published in 2013, White’s book emerged at a time when territorial disputes between Japan and China in the East China Sea were rising. Since 2013, China has escalated these tensions, raising the ante by declaring the East China Sea and more controversially, the South China Sea as “core national interests[3]”; by declaring an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over parts of the East China Sea, including the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands; by militarizing the dispute with its armed coast guard vessels; and by pointedly tasking its first aircraft carrier the Liaoning for its maiden patrol into the South China Sea from its southern port city of Sansha. In isolation, none of these events is especially threatening. However, their combined effect points to a Beijing no longer content to “hide its power, bide its time” – as former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once famously remarked[4] – and to a rising China which, White contends, demands an American response[5].

As White sees it, as China’s economic power continues to grow, so too does its desire to reclaim what it sees as its rightful place as a great power in Asia, ironically mirroring the US’ perception of itself as exceptional and predestined to lead. As China’s continued economic growth enables it to invest further in the expansion of its military, the likelihood of Beijing and Washington “sliding towards rivalry by default” [6] increases as they view each other as strategic competitors. As this power shift is caused by China’s rise and not by America’s decline, White notes there is little the US can do about it. However White argues that China’s challenge has now become so obvious that the US must consciously decide how to respond, and White outlines three clear options for the US to consider.

Option one involves the US resisting China’s challenge in an attempt to preserve the current status quo in Asia and retain its primacy. [7] Option two requires the US to step back from its dominant role in Asia, leaving China to assume hegemony. Whilst the third option requires China and the US to reach an agreement on power-sharing within Asia, allowing China a greater role which acknowledges many of its ambitions, whilst retaining a strong Asian presence of its own[8]. White refers to this power-sharing arrangement as a ‘Concert of Asia’, involving four major regional powers: the US, China, Japan and India.[9]

White articulates the argument that an economically vibrant and growing Asia is essential to ensure America’s economic interests in the region, and that a core ingredient for this is regional stability. Moreover, White argues that attempting to maintain primacy in the region may not be the best way for the US to ensure this stability. Hence, at its core, White’s argument is a pragmatic economic and strategic one. In essence, the implications of contesting China’s rise would be unacceptably harmful to America’s economic interests; whilst the implications of a retreat to ‘fortress America’ would be both unacceptable for the US domestically and unduly expose lesser regional states to an aggressive Chinese ascendancy.

In strategic terms, White poses a very strong argument. His assessment that both sides appear to have backed themselves into corners from which they cannot back down without losing face is probably on the money. Equally, his predictions of the excessive economic and political costs of even a short-term conflict within the region between these two major powers makes cold hard economic sense. However, when the demands of economic rationality and national pride conflict, history has shown nationalism usually trumps economic pragmatism. In citing the Concert of Europe as an example of a pre-emptive multilateral agreement aimed to prevent further conflict and provide regional stability, it must be remembered that this agreement followed hot on the heels of decades of conflict in Europe. No such current conflict currently exists within Asia to imbue the postulated power shift with the same sense of urgency. Far more likely it would seem is a continuation of the status quo, where the US, in what may be posited as an alarming geopolitical example of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, continues to believe it has the economic, political and strategic wherewithal to resist an obviously rising China and to unilaterally lay down hypothetical ‘red lines in the sand’.

That China will ignore these red lines is a lay-down misère. Emboldened by the recent actions of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and more recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, it appears highly likely that China would call America’s bluff in East Asia, should it wish to do so. Interestingly White acknowledges this weakness in his argument and here we get to the crux of my issues with his book. Despite outlining at length why America should share power with China in Asia, White goes on to admit that this is a long shot.[10] He admits as much in stating that the most likely outcome is for both states to continue along their current geopolitical trajectories, drawing them ever deeper into strategic conflict with predictable negative economic consequences for both.[11] To my mind, he hedges his bets too much here, which takes away from the force of his argument. Moreover, this implies a fourth option which he does not outline – namely, for both sides to do nothing, which would appear the most likely scenario, based on current assessments.

Despite these few objections, White’s book makes a valuable contribution to the discourse on how the US should respond to China’s sustained economic rise and growing power. His bold assertion that efforts by the US to preserve its primacy in Asia can only end badly is bleak and inarguable. Less convincing is his main claim that the best way to handle this is through a regional power-sharing arrangement between the major East Asian nations. Most notable is White’s analysis of the situation from an American perspective. With most contributions on the subject focusing on how China should respond, it is refreshing to see an unbiased assessment of the options facing America. Finally from an Australian perspective, the big question is where do we fit in all of this? Perhaps Professor White is leaving that for his next installment.

Bibliography

Hugh White, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power (Collingwood, Vic., Black Inc., 2013).

Researcher Profiles: Professor Hugh White’, Australian National University [webpage], 2013 <https://researchers.anu.edu.au/researchers/white-hj&gt; accessed 20 March 2014.

Dr. Subash Kapila, ‘South China Sea and Indo Pacific Politico-Strategic Dynamics’. C3S Paper No. 2029, Chennai Centre for Strategic Studies, 2 Nov. 2013 <http://www.c3sindia.org/eastasia/3765&gt;, para. 6. accessed 20 March 2014

Michael Hirsh, ‘The Clinton Legacy: How Will History Judge the Soft-Power Secretary of State?’, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2013

End Notes

[1]Hugh White, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power (Melbourne, Australia, Black Inc., 2013).

[2]‘Researcher Profiles: Professor Hugh White’, Australian National University [webpage], 2013 <https://researchers.anu.edu.au/researchers/white-hj&gt; accessed 20 March 2014.

[3]Dr. Subash Kapila, ‘South China Sea and Indo Pacific Politico-Strategic Dynamics’. C3S Paper No. 2029, Chennai Centre for Strategic Studies, 2 Nov. 2013 <http://www.c3sindia.org/eastasia/3765&gt;, para. 6. accessed 20 March 2014.

[4]Michael Hirsh, ‘The Clinton Legacy: How Will History Judge the Soft-Power Secretary of State?’, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2013, 37.

[5]Hugh White, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power (Melbourne, Australia, Black Inc., 2013), 5.

[6]Ibid, 2.

[7] Ibid, 5.

[8] Ibid, 5.

[9] Ibid, 83-95.

[10] Ibid, 130.

[11] Ibid, 130.

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