By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Hugh White’s 180-page book The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power has an important point to make, but terseness is not always a virtue. Primers can be as off-putting as tomes, and this primer is more like a plumped up outline or a script for a power point presentation. As policy prescription it rejects the least grain of anecdotal or narrative sugar to help the message go down—and even the statistics are pretty skimpy. And yet, short as it is, a constricted, severely non-emotive vocabulary makes The China Choice tedious to plow through to its final iteration of the power-sharing “choice” that, White asserts, isn’t so much as considered by many American policy makers (a doubtful proposition, since ruminations aren't always trumpeted). And, yes, I do question White’s clinging to the word “choice.” To his mind, there’s no intellectually-respectable challenge to his really quite sensible prescription, which would have been more convincing, substantively as well as rhetorically, did he not undermine it by mind-numbing reiteration as well as condescending oversimplification. All in all, I was so exasperated by White’s approach that I wanted to disagree with him even though, benighted American that I am, I’d managed to reach much the same conclusion without benefit of his superior Australian thought-processes.
Here’s the first of many restatements of White’s argument. It appears in the first chapter:
It is...quite wrong to see America as a country in decline, because in itself America remains a remarkably vibrant and innovative society and economy. But it is equally wrong to imply, as American political leaders often do, that its relative position in the world of power is not changing. This overlooks the simple mathematical fact that when we talk about relative power, America’s trajectory is only half the story, and not the half that matters right now. The shift in power is being driven by China’s rise, not by America’s decline [and] there is not much America can do about it.....[That being the case,] America has three options. It can resist China’s challenge and try to preserve the status quo in Asia. It can step back from its dominant role in Asia, leaving China to attempt to establish hegemony. Or it can remain in Asia on a new basis, allowing China a larger role but also maintaining a strong presence of its own.
Strategically, according to White, the power-tilting factors are essentially two: (1) China’s increasingly productive use of a population that is three times that of the U.S.; (2) China’s possession of enough missile-mounted nuclear weapons to seriously threaten the U.S. mainland and reduce the value of the once overwhelmingly superior American arsenal. Wealth, says White, is power, but the scope of China’s reach, even with its massive increase in national wealth, its economic domination of much smaller neighbors and its creation of a blue sea navy, cannot threaten America’s status as a great power. China, like it or not, will have to deal with the U.S. as an equal.
Meanwhile, White cautions, in the matter of countering Chinese hegemony and maintaining presence, influence and/or power in Asia, America cannot count on much help from China’s pygmy neighbors to form an “iron wall” to contain the dragon. The neighbors, as rational players, will be looking after their own interests first.
All of them [the Southeast Asian powers] want America to stay engaged in Asia to balance China’s power [and]not all of them have an equally strong interest in good relations with China [but they]will not sacrifice that interest to offer the U.S. substantial support against China—unless they are directly threatened themselves.
Worse, from the U.S. point of view, “all of them threaten to entangle the United States in their own quarrels with Beijing.” For America to stay involved with Asia as China’s power increases will require some pretty tricky diplomacy and produce some pretty patchy results, if White is to be believed.
And yet I’m not so sure that the neighbors will be quite as docile and compliant as White expects. Japan is remilitarizing. Not-so-small Indonesia is a sleeping volcano for which ASEAN is an underutilized tool. While avoiding aggression, India continues to defend its contested borders and play host to Beijing’s nemesis, the Dalai Lama. Chinese control of rocks and reefs in the South China Sea is being fiercely resisted. Even backward, poverty-stricken Myanmar is already pushing back, having indefinitely postponed the Myitsone hydroelectric project at the headwaters of the country’s lifeblood Irrawaddy River. China needs the power and is reported to be furious, but the locals can see little or no benefit and considerable harm to their own interests.
Since all of these countries as well as all the others ringing China trade extensively if not exclusively with China, as does Australia, White argues that economic dependence will bind them more or less helplessly to China’s sphere of power. That being the case, given Australia’s increasing dependence on trade with China, I can’t help wondering if it isn’t White himself who’s feeling the gravitation and hoping that a little Sinophilia will protect the economic future of his own country. A fanciful thought, perhaps, but there it is. The hope that a still powerful U.S. will retain a countervailing interest in Australia’s Asian context would be entirely consistent.
Be that as it may, if it would be disastrous for America to go to war with China and self-defeating for America to pull out of Asia entirely, White insists that there’s only one realistic policy path for America now and in the near future: to work toward a cooperative sharing of power in Asia such that all, great powers and small, will benefit. Harking back to nineteenth century European history, he calls it a Concert of Asia. Whatever it’s called, cooperation would seem to be a no brainer. Except for the details, of course, where the devil resides. But sadly there’s no room for elaboration in The China Choice.
Which brings us to a critical gap—or disappointment. As appealingly as he paints his Concert of Asia, White refuses to plumb very deeply its likely appeal or otherwise to Chinese policy makers and population:
Within a few years...China’s economy will be bigger than America’s on some measures. Within a couple of decades, it will be bigger...on any measure....[A]s China’s power grows, I believe it will want to be a great power again, and to be treated as a great power by others....That raises a question for the Chinese and for the rest of the world. How will China use its power? Will it be a harsh bully or a cooperative partner in a regional order? The answers are not clear One thing, however, is clear. China’s ambitions are not compatible with the old order [enforced by U.S. power.]
Do we already have a hint of an answer as we listen to Beijing's bellicose language and watch repeated and sustained efforts to expand China’s maritime boundaries to their historic maximum? What does White think? Or must we simply hope and pray for the best? Perhaps that's what White means when he concludes his book with a phrase that's no less out of place when uttered by American presidents these days: “May God bless the United States of America.” Given White's advocacy of concerted power-sharing, wouldn’t it make more sense to invoke blessings on all peoples and nations?