Menu Close


The China Choice: why America needs to share power

Hugh White’s new book says a concert with Asia mean peace in our time. But should the US retreat in the face of China? AAP

“I’d love to have the German army in Australia,” Hugh White said wistfully.

The date was July 2004. The place was the bar on the fourth floor at the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science, Houghton Street.

I was intrigued. “Why, Hugh?” I asked.

“250,000 troops,” White mused. “We could do a lot with a quarter of a million troops.”

“Not with 250,000 German ones,” I countered. “This is not your grand-daddy’s German army. Only 5,000 are combat-ready and the rest are polishing the wheels on tanks. It’s not like you can just drop them in a Vietnamese jungle. They’d die.”

“I’d love to write a book,” White beamed. “I really want to write a book.”

Well, he has. And he did.

At the risk of revealing a private conversation (but I doubt it; there were about 24 people present), the exchange above gives us at least some insight into the mind that produced The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power.

The China Choice’s thesis is straightforward: rather than engage in competition and conflict with China, Washington should share power with Beijing by forming a “Concert of Asia”, comprising the major powers of the Asia-Pacific.

White’s book expands upon the thesis he propounded in 2010. In an earlier article in The Conversation, I canvassed the debates White raised in his original Quarterly Essay.

Beijing: partner or competitor?

During the 2000 US presidential election, Al Gore and Bill Clinton campaigned on the theme of China as a “strategic partner” of the US. By contrast, George W. Bush argued that China could never be a partner of Washington; it would always be a “strategic competitor”.

As Bush’s future National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserted in Foreign Affairs in 2000:

“China is not a ‘status quo’ power but one that would like to alter Asia’s balance of power in its own favour. That alone makes it a strategic competitor, not the ‘strategic partner’ the Clinton administration once called it.”

Despite this inauspicious start, US-China relations under Bush were stable, following a terse exchange over the Hainan Island affair. The central point of friction between the Beijing and Washington during the Bush administration remained Taiwan.

Since 2003, the PRC leadership under Hu Jintao has vacillated between closer integration and hard-line opposition to any semblance of independence from Taipei. Further complicating the situation are occasional faux pas, such as Major-General Zhu Chenghu’s threat to strike “hundreds of American cities” with nuclear weapons, in the event of Sino-US conflict over Taiwan.

The debate around the relationship US and China’s - partner or rival? - is likely to tested again, this time by Taiwan. AAP

The US foreign policy debate on China-as-partner-or-rival was given a provocative twist in 2005 in Robert Kaplan’s ‘How We Would Fight China’. Kaplan, who writes an approving blurb for White’s book, is rather more hawkish than his antipodean colleague, although it is clear that White was influenced deeply by Kaplan’s ideas.

Taiwan is merely one of the strategic issues in Asia with which policy makers need grapple. As one leading US realist, John Mearsheimer, argued, China will attempt to push the US out of Asia. But it will fail, Mearsheimer asserts. How does White envisage the outcome in an Asia-Pacific where a declining US persisted in its military aggrandisement in the region? What if the future Chinese leadership becomes more hawkish and attempts to transform the South China Sea into a Chinese lake?

We won’t need to wait long to find out. In the last six weeks, China and the Philippines have come close to confrontation over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea (SCS); the July ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh saw Southeast Asian states in furious disagreement over rival maritime claims in the SCS, even as Beijing sent a thinly-veiled warning to Manila to back off. The Philippines wants the dispute arbitrated by the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

In response, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, “Isn’t it a weird thing in international affairs to submit a sovereign country’s territory to international arbitration? What a chaos the world will be in if this happens?”

Yes, quite weird. The rule of law, and an independent judiciary in the form of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), under the auspices of the UN taking an impartial decision within the ambit of a multilateral treaty is very weird indeed. If you’re Beijing. If you believe in “sharing power” with Beijing.

If you’re Hugh White.

China has ratified the Third UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III). The US hasn’t (to save you looking it up). However, like the NPT, UNCLOS III is merely another convention that Beijing signs without the slightest intention of adherence. In 2001, China also joined the World Trade Organisation and duly ratified its attendant Trade in Intellectual Property Services (TRIPS) agreement. Yet, anyone who has ever visited China knows of the sheer scale of knock-offs, replicas, fakes and blatant product piracy. Beijing makes sporadic, insincere attempts at enforcing IP rights; but these efforts fool no one.

Readers will find none of this in The China Choice. Nevertheless, White feels comfortable enough to advocate “concert diplomacy” with Beijing. Nor will you find any mention of cyber-espionage. In April this year, the US’s former counter-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke, warned, in a grossly under-reported story: “Every major company in the United States has already been penetrated by China.” For Clark, this represents not only a commercial threat to the US economy, but also a military threat.

Labor pains

In his review of The China Choice, Paul Keating wrote, somewhat oddly, “I have long held the view that the future of Asian stability cannot be cast by a non-Asian power.”

Paul Keating: believes non-Asian countries cannot cas the future of Asia. AAP

Why is Asia different from Europe or the Middle East? The answer: it isn’t. None of these regions possesses a regional state with the capability to ensure either security or stability. In any case, Beijing has demonstrated absolutely no interest in “Asian security”. Beijing describes itself as a “participant” in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) process, not a ‘member’, thus avoiding any binding regional security commitments.

Consequently, anyone who argues that the world’s biggest non-democracy is interested in “Asian security”, as that country steadily continues to militarize the South China Sea, has an exceptionally perverse view of “Asian security”.

The ALP has never been entirely comfortable with the US alliance. Curtin called upon the Americans in desperation only after it was clear that Churchill had abandoned Australia and the Japanese invasion threat was real; Evatt opposed Washington’s plans to revive the Japanese economy after 1947; Cairns led Labor’s anti-Vietnam war crusade; Whitlam labelled Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia “criminal”, and called for the disbanding of SEATO – the US’s first attempt to contain China. In 1985, the ALP Left compelled Hawke to perform a volte-face on the MX missile tests.

Keating, while in office, kept his powder dry, although he and Hawke attempted to establish APEC without US participation (the Japanese refused to countenance this). But Keating emptied both barrels into Obama following the US president’s visit in November 2011, arguing that Obama should not have been permitted to deliver an anti-China speech in Federal Parliament. Simon Crean, Mark Latham and Kim Beazley lambasted the US publicly on the Iraq invasion (albeit from the safe distance of opposition) and pledged Australian withdrawal.

Kevin Rudd, like Keating, attempted to dilute US power in the Asia-Pacific, proposing a concert of powers, comprising China, the US, Japan, Indonesia and India, among others, under the rubric of an “Asia-Pacific Community”. However, no leaders in Asia or North America treated Rudd’s initiative with any seriousness. Nevertheless, Rudd’s views have found some resonance in White’s book, as White himself proposes a “concert of great powers”.

Two generations of Australian politicians and policy makers have proven perfectly content to accommodate China, as its wealth pours into Treasury’s coffers. Consequently, White’s book is likely to become the bible of the Beijing Lobby; its apostles traverse the political spectrum of China apologists and appeasers, including, but not limited to, Paul Keating, Bob Hawke, Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd, Ross Garnaut and Gareth Evans.

But putting aside this coterie, one is left wondering at whom White’s book is directed. The Australian defence and foreign policy establishments? The Pentagon? The US State Department? Surely not the Beijing lobby of former Australian prime ministers, foreign ministers and sundry acolytes? The slow boat to China they boarded sailed long ago.

Beijing describes itself as a participant in the ASEAN Regional Forum, not a member, avoiding binding regional security commitments. AAP

The Concert dances… but it isn’t going anywhere*

Asia does not need great-power concerts which, White admits, are difficult to construct and potentially unstable once they are in effect. And, ominously, White further admits that a sphere of influence would need to be conceded to China: “Obviously not over the entire East Asian region… China might be conceded a sphere of influence – in Indochina, for example.” (p. 150). This may be news to Hanoi.

Spheres of influence are what landed Churchill, Roosevelt and Truman in such hot water. The notorious “percentages agreement”, negotiated by an inebriated Churchill over several hours with Stalin, allowed Moscow a free hand in virtually all of Eastern Europe; it forced Truman to adopt a policy of unlimited containment from 1948, embroiling Washington in wars, not only in Korea, but also, ultimately, in Vietnam. It left millions of Poles, Hungarians, Germans, Romanians, Bulgarians and Czechoslovaks under the yoke of Soviet imperialism for 40 years. And it left all of Europe confronting the threat of nuclear annihilation until 1989.

Instead of spheres of influence, what Asia needs is pluri-lateral commitments from the region’s major powers to limit their conventional and nuclear forces. This does not mean conceding China a “sphere of influence” where it can simply throw its weight around in Asia to the detriment of its neighbours; it means sound, negotiated limits upon the weaponization of the Asia-Pacific.

According to White’s strategic conspectus, this particular concert would comprise a “party of four” (p. 144): the US, China, India and Japan. The latter two countries are included – reluctantly. Meanwhile, Indonesia has potential concert status, but not until mid-century. White decides Russia is out. This might be news to Moscow; after all, where would Beijing and New Delhi – the world’s biggest arms importers – get their weapons from then?

It may well be that White has been seduced by the Pax Britannica – the high-tide mark of great-power concert diplomacy under the auspices of the Concert of Europe that shaped the 1815–1914 period (which the author cites approvingly on pp. 133–7). However, the circumstances were decidedly different. Britain was the balancing power that often determined whether or not a conflict took place; and, if it did, it played a decisive role (the Crimean conflict; the Opium Wars).

But White’s rose-coloured and fleeting appraisal of the Concert ignores the fact that British diplomats made a catastrophic error by allowing Bismarck’s emergent Prussia to fight three decisive wars (1864–70), giving the embryonic German empire mastery over continental Europe. By the 1890s, Bismarck was gone, and Britain was mired in a deadly, unlimited arms race with Germany; in 1914, the guns of August compelled Britain to fight beside France and Russia to counter the German threat once and for all.

Why is Asia different from Europe or the Middle East? The answer: it isn’t. AAP

Trust – but verify

White cites Bill Clinton’s declaration of a “strategic partnership” with Beijing approvingly; yet, he fails to note that it was Clinton who revitalised the US-Japan strategic partnership, so clearly directed at containing China, under the rubric of the Nye Plan. Clinton also signed National Missile Defence (NMD) – and its sibling, Theatre Missile Defence – into existence. Clinton left Bush to activate NMD, opening technologies such as Aegis to the Japanese and Australian navies. Subsequently, both Bush and Obama left open the possibility of supplying Taiwan with Aegis air-sea warfare capabilities as a means of dissuading Beijing from increasing its force projection across the Taiwan Strait.

Yet, ‘strategic ambiguity’ over Taiwan – a concept that invites uncertainty as to the US’s reactions and acts as a deterrent to both Beijing and Taipei – is dismissed summarily by White. Instead, White proposes a power-sharing arrangement:

“Washington has long claimed and exercised a unique military posture in Asia … This would have to change under a Concert of Asia. Treating China as an equal would mean accepting that America would not seek to impose limits on China’s military capability that it would not accept on its own.” (p. 151).

Why should Washington accept this? Why should the US retreat from its preponderant position in the face of growing Chinese military power? Instead, why not work to demilitarise Asia via sensible, verifiable disarmament measures, placing ceilings upon weapons stockpiles and deployments?

This was at the crux of the Reagan-Gorbachev disarmament initiatives. In December 1987, the US and USSR signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which eliminated 9% of the world’s nuclear missiles (not warheads, mind) and removed short and medium-range missiles from the East and West European theatres.

The Soviets gave up more than twice as many missiles as the US. Similarly, the Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) Treaty (1990) saw Moscow surrender voluntarily the better than 2:1 advantage that the Warsaw Pact held over NATO in troops and armour.

In both cases, admittedly, the US “negotiated from strength”, as Reagan put it; throughout 1981–86, Washington spent $US2 trillion on rearmament and became the world’s largest debtor; by 1991, the USSR had collapsed. Nevertheless, in the interim, Reagan and Gorbachev concluded major arms reductions treaties that still define Russo-American strategic relations; these treaties were concluded bilaterally without the need for ‘concert diplomacy’. Instead, the watchwords of the new détente in Soviet-US relations were “trust – but verify.”

White says little about arms reductions; the chapter devoted to the military balance merely extemporises upon the implausibility of success of the Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle concept and the emerging strategic stalemate between Sino-US maritime forces.

Bilateral and plurilateral arms reduction initiatives are more likely to come to fruition when the US directs its diplomatic efforts towards verifiable disarmament, as Moscow and Washington’s efforts since 1987 demonstrate. Verifiable disarmament has already proven effective in the case of India, which was brought within the ambit of a nuclear materials code of conduct by the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement (2006), after decades of failed efforts to persuade New Delhi to adhere to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

By contrast, NPT signatory China has assisted Pakistan (and, possibly, Iran) by proliferating nuclear technologies; protected Tehran from sanctions; shielded and supplied nuclear North Korea; vetoed Security Council efforts to sanction Assad’s regime in Syria; and kept supplying Mugabe’s Zimbabwe with weapons until 2008.

Given that China’s major strategic successes have been assisting the nuclear weaponisation of both Pakistan and North Korea, one assumes that a veteran of security policy like White would not be so placid, nor so benign, about the prospect of granting Beijing anything resembling a regional sphere of influence on the basis of its track record.

China’s major strategic successes have been assisting the nuclear weaponisation of both Pakistan and North Korea. AAP

The fact that Iran has Shahab missiles, courtesy of China, means Tehran also has the capability to launch strikes against any country in the Middle East. Moreover, as defence analyst Mark Schneider notes, “Even a thousand weapons may underestimate the scope of the Chinese nuclear force 10 or 20 years from now.” As Schneider also asserts, Beijing is reportedly working upon multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs, which permit 10-12 nuclear warheads on a single missile). Yet, this same China is the country with which White proposes the US “share power”?

This is akin to rewarding bad behaviour. Within the type of concert system that White proposes, a China that had already been granted a sphere of influence would have little incentive to move towards disarmament, as its extant security policies have already delivered Beijing advantages at no cost. Instead, China could deploy the threat of further weaponisation as a means of obtaining increased strategic advantages to the detriment of both the US and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Frankly, this is the type of thinking that leads to dangerous, unpredictable arms races.

Although both the Soviets and the Americans committed grave diplomatic and military blunders throughout the Cold War, they nevertheless reached the same, correct conclusion: it was imperative to retreat from arms races with no ceilings. This became the defining logic of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties in 1972 and 1979, through the INF and CFE Treaties, to the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties (I-III) and New START (2010).

The China Choice lacks the intellectual perspicacity and, indeed, the literary panache that renders books like Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power such compulsive reading. White is right to argue that Australia cannot have its cake and hope that the current US-China status quo will persist indefinitely; but the vigilant do not invite vampires inside their houses either.

White believes a Concert of Asia may mean peace in our time. The more sober Mark Schneider thinks not: “No other country has increased its military spending by double digits for twenty years with the intent of a ‘peaceful rise’”.

*The Comte de Ligne said this of the Congress of Vienna in 1814, the forerunner of the Concert of Europe, in case you’re wondering.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 128,500 academics and researchers from 4,058 institutions.

Register now