The China Choice: A Bold Vision for U.S.-China Relations
Image Credit: U.S. State Department (Flickr)

The China Choice: A Bold Vision for U.S.-China Relations


My new book, The China Choice, explores the decision America faces about its relations with China and its role in Asia as China’s power grows.  But the title may be a little misleading, because of course there is more than one choice to be made.  America faces at least two decisions, and one of the keys to making them well and getting them right is to consider them in the right order.

The first is on the question of principle: should America even contemplate changing the role it plays in Asia, in order to accommodate China’s rising power, or should it insist on preserving the status quo?  The second is on the question of degree: how far should America be willing to go to accommodate China, and where should it draw the line beyond which it is not willing to make further concessions?

Rory Medcalf’s valuable critique of the book here on The Diplomat last week focuses primarily on the second question, and makes some important points about it which I will explore a little later.  But I’ll start by saying something about the first question, because we cannot decide how far Washington should go to accommodate Beijing before we are quite clear that it should even try to do so, and why.

In The China Choice I argue that America should try to accommodate China’s growing power.  I propose that it should be willing negotiate a new regional order in which it continues to play a major strategic role, but not the kind of primacy that it has exercised until now. The main reason is simply that China no longer accepts U.S. primacy as the basis for the Asian order, and that as its power grows to equal and overtake America’s, the chances of successfully imposing primacy on China are too low, and the risks and costs of trying are too high, to be justified.

Even if China may not become strong enough to dominate Asia itself, it is already strong enough to prevent the U.S. maintaining primacy.  If America tries to perpetuate the status quo, there is a very real risk of an escalating contest which neither side could win, and which could very easily flare into a major, and perhaps catastrophic, war.  The main reason for America to seek an accommodation with China is to reduce the risk of such a catastrophe.

Many people will disagree.  Some of them think that the relationship with China is working fine, and that accommodation – or further accommodation – is unnecessary.  They think that Washington is committed to a good relationship with Beijing, and that China will be satisfied with the kind of relationship America is offering now.

I think this is too optimistic.  The relationship today can manage day-to-day stresses, but is not robust enough to withstand real problems.  Some people cite the Chen case earlier this year as proof that the relationship is strong, but the fact that such a minor issue can cause such anxieties about the future of the world’s most important bilateral relationship surely points the other way.   The U.S.-China relationship is probably going to have to face much greater stresses in future, and it is not at all clear that it is strong enough to withstand them.  Furthermore, the relationship seems to be getting weaker rather than stronger over time, so the risk of a rupture grows.

The present fabric of the relationship is weak and getting weaker because China’s and America’s ambitions in Asia over coming decades are inherently incompatible.  It is important to my argument to explain why this should be so.  Those who think that America is already accommodating China have perhaps not really registered what is at stake here.  For the past 40 years the Asian strategic order, and the U.S.-China relationship, have been based on a conception of American leadership which places all other countries in Asia in a clearly subordinate position.  American policy today precludes any substantial change in this status quo over the coming decades.  This was made clear by Barack Obama in his speech in Canberra in November of last year.

American optimism about the future of the relationship therefore depends on the hope that China will find this acceptable.   It is often said that America’s policy towards China today is not containment.  But Washington clearly does resist any substantial expansion of China’s influence at the expense of U.S. primacy.  So if it’s not containment, that can only be because China is not seeking such an expansion.

January 5, 2013 at 21:44

I do not know where Mr White gets his inspiration, but it certainly is not from the rest of the Asian countries. He argues in favor of the superpower status of China and the dwindling power of the United States in Asia, as if these are manifest destiny. They are not. Mr White should also consider that each of the Asian countries also have a vote on the table. Most of these countries have a far better record on human development, economic growth and international reputation than China. Growth is relative and China's is being achieved at horrendous cost to its people and environment. There is also that no small matter of the rising threat of economic recession in China. The recent intensifying conflicts in the East Sea and the South China Sea are all instigated by China's inordinate claim to these maritime territories. China is not a growing power, Mr White. It is a growing problem.

A. G. de Ágreda
December 31, 2012 at 04:29

Mr. White;
I value the ideas you bring to the fore but I believe that there are a few considerations missing.
First, Asia does not have to be THE arena in which both nations contend. What about influence in South America or Africa? What about non geographic spheres of influence such as financial markets, World media and the like? It might look as though China will stay within the limits of Asia in a globalised World. I don't think so.
Second. The World today is about influence and alliances. Is China going to be happy with an agreement in which other actors -which might be US allies- are not taken into account? Moreover, is it going to be happy with a 50% share in her own continent and regional sphere of influence? I think it unlikely either.
Third. You may be focusing too much on the chance of war and political influence. What about global dominance of financial and currency markets? Is the US in a position to accept a peer to the USD(ollar) any more than a peer to the USN(avy)?
There are probably many more considerations to make. I just wanted to emphasize the fact that the regional context is no longer valid when dealing with global actors.
Thank you for your excellent arguments and your patience reading this. Have a fantastic 2013.

October 31, 2012 at 21:28

 The proper perspective to take on China is the "Iron Fist." The US dictates terms and China obeys submissively. We do not accept the Chinese government or culture as our equal. We have nuclear weapons and will use them to prevent China from expanding one centimeter into the oceans around it. We are masters of the sea and China will resist this to it's own detriment. The defense particularly with nukes is much stronger than the offense. Given the fact the status quo empowers the US our position is impregnable. Perhaps we should have a Pearl Harbor on Chinese sea and air forces before they become big enough to be more than a nuisance. We should regularly sail aircraft carriers through the Taiwan straits and defy China to do something. We need to increase the provocation level not decrease. China must come to grips with eternal American control of the Pacific all the way up to their territorial waters. China must kowtow before us as a FIRST step.

Anti Neo-cons
September 7, 2012 at 16:48

As a matter of tongue-in-cheek to your insulting comments – typical of many Washington paid trolls and sockpuppets here – maybe China should.  Mongolia, Vietnam, Philippines, and even Japan should perhaps be annexed to China proper.
Had that happened a thousand years earlier, there would have been no great Mongol invasion of Asia and Europe and the Middle East, or of a Japan launching a barbaric and savagely uncivilized attack on the colonized countries in East Asia and the U.S.

Anti neo-cons
September 7, 2012 at 16:37

You sound naive.  If Mitt Romney comes to power, my money is on a nuclear war. 
Beijing will use its nuclear heft if Washington with its superior navy push too hard and crosses the red line.  And the red line is Chinese territories jumped claim by greedy Manila, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.  Beijing cannot bargain this away nor act timid over it.  It has to do a "Falkland Islands" stand on it.  Bet on it. 
The same applies to the Diaoyus.  No surrendered and indicted war criminal nation shall or be allowed to enjoy spoils of war at Chinese expense, Washington notwithstanding.

August 27, 2012 at 12:51

It may be noted that the Chinese government no longer truly has the power to control or mistreat its citizens. Chinese teachings never truly emphasized the importance of independence and self-gain like the American-society did. As a communist nation, the people were taught to behave as a collective. These days, this collective does not include the government. If the Chinese government chooses to mistreat its people, they will have to deal with the anger of almost 1.7 billion people. As I have recently returned to China for a few months, I found out that the citizens no longer fear the police or the government as they did in the earlier years of communist rule. Every action the government makes is carefully watched by the eyes of their citizens. One must realize that government censoring will not blind the eyes of the people, only deter them for a while. One of the unspoken policies of the government now is to spread rumors about an impeding policy change. If the general response is good, they go through with it. If the response is bad, they put it off as a rumor and leave it. The government of China does not work in the clearly defined, systematic manner of the western governments. However, it does compensate through these kinds of informal policies. In this way, the voice of the people are still heard, even if it is not so apparent.

August 26, 2012 at 16:28

Soon the US will go the way of the Roman and British empires. It's inevitable. The only way to stop it is to destroy both China and Russia. Off course these two countries aint waiting to be destroyed. Before being blown off the world map,they will inflict enormous and unacceptable destruction on US assets.Btw no amount of  missile shileds will limit the destruction.
The Chinese are being demonised.They aint going to be the big brother. They want to be treated with respect. If the US thinks its nuclear weapons can coerce the Chinese,there is no reason why the PLA can't build more missiles.There is no need for the PLAto match the US  missile for misslle 50 to 100 nm  will suffice to maim the us if the Pentagon were really to initiate the first strike.
Soon the US with its economy in dire straits will have to choose  between butter and guns. If it chooses the former,the world be a much safer place  for all countries,including the US.Excessive military build up won't buy the US more security. It will make the Chinese and Russians more insecure and lead to them adding more capable weapons. The sooner the Pentagon knows it cannot have 100% security ,the better.

August 25, 2012 at 12:27

Thing is Hugh White believes China to be able to start a war, primarily out of nationalist pride. But in my opinion at worst it will only be a few thousand naval deaths before China and the U.S reach an accomdation. In other words a world war or nuclear war is not going to happen. China and the U.S are too reasonable and likeminded to wage a war with each other.

August 24, 2012 at 20:05

Appeasement of the 30s was mainly about the british strategy of instigating a German-Soviet war.
Former British PM Heath: I think the Soviet Union has a lot of troubles. They are facing domestic economic difficulties and agricultural predicament, and there are also differences within the leadership, over questions of tactics and timing, not over long-term strategy. 
Mao: I think the Soviet Union is busy with its own affairs and unable to deal with Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, China and the Pacific. I think it will lose.
Heath: However, its military strength is continually augmented. Although the Soviet Union has encountered troubles at many places in the world, its strength is continuing to grow. Therefore, we deem this to be the principal threat. Does the Chairman think the Soviet Union constitutes a menace to China?
Mao: We are prepared for it to come, but it will collapse if it comes. It has only a handful of troops, and you Europeans are so frightened of it! Some people in the West are always trying to direct this calamity toward China. Your senior, Chamberlain, and also Daladier of France were the ones who pushed Germany eastward.
Heath: I opposed Mr. Chamberlain then…

August 24, 2012 at 20:00

Why not the U.S subjugate itself to China? U.S owns billions to China anyway. 

August 24, 2012 at 14:12

@jumaju or mumbo jumbo or whatever you call yourself,
It is clear that you are one of those people who loves to hear the sound of your voice. The article itself is significantly shorter than your self importance responses so why don't you do yourself a favour and make your case succinct and to the point, it is the mark of intelligence to do so. I don't know who you are and could not be bothered to read the crap that you espouses but i have a feeling that you must one of those PRC supporter because that is very typical of them, full of hot air and BS. Is that clear enough for you or do i need to repeat again i ..did …not .. that rubbish.

August 24, 2012 at 07:42

Wilson must be a rich man.  Only the rich could say something like that.  The poor simply wants to be richer, democracy comes after you have more than enough to survive.  Fill the stomach first.  Unfortunately, the poor in Manila had no choice and suffers the politics of democracy.  The poor in the Philippines needs to be liberated from the tyranny of Filipino-style democracy.

August 22, 2012 at 23:05

I would rather belong to a poor nation that was free than to a rich nation that had ceased to be inlove with democracy. -Woodrow Wilson.

Hence, we do not need your "liberation".

Adelo Vant
August 22, 2012 at 21:16

Sounds like paid advertising to me,  "America to seek an accommodation with China is to reduce the risk of such a catastrophe" or  "China to seek an accommodation with America is to reduce the risk of such a catastrophe."  If this is the starting point for either, then catastrophe will fall on everyone.  China emergence and America position in global standing is assured with peace; So, such talk is foolish and very dangerous blustering, not diplomacy.

August 22, 2012 at 08:48

As I have been preaching, what America needs is a generation of politicians running on profiting from cooperation with China. 
What do Americans need?  Jobs, and a better tomorrow (which subsumes the requirements of a good environment, better healthcare, good education, etc.).  Yet left to their own devices, American industry is seriously reducing the number of jobs available at all, by going with robotics on an accelerated basis.  The number of jobs lost to mechanized "productivity gains" by far outrank jobs lost to China.   How can that be achieved?  A strong component has to be doing more business.  Not just any business, but mutually profitable business so that the ventures are sustainable.
China presents the markest and players that are eager to JV.  If instead of driving away Chinese investors, America should welcome the FDI, especially in export oriented industries.

August 21, 2012 at 20:46

China, with its vast holdings of US Treasury bills, has a vested interest in the well-being of the US economy.  The American and Chinese economies are well and truly connected; one cannot do without the other.  The bond market is the bellwether and the head of PIMCO will tell us when things are about to go very wrong.  There is no reason to believe that there is another impending economic collapse.  We just barely escaped the "big collapse" and thankfully Ben Bernanke was there to act, though belatedly. Jim Cramer on CNBC was screaming fire, months before the Fed and Paulson finally did something.  The people on the market floor are far more sensitive than government officials.
Due to the debt overhang, the US will not have the growth that it had in the past.  This is simple mathematics.  In China's case, the scenario is very different.  The slowdown in exports from China has already caused a lot of manufacturers to close shop in the KunShan area of Shanghai and Dongguan of Guangdong.  A figure as high as 30% has been stated among business people. (Don't expect Chinese government to say anything about this).  However, something is very strange, workers are still hard to find and wages have not dropped.  So where have all the redundant workers gone to? 
China has a lot of pent-up demand, and a lot of savings available.  The trick is to make these savings available to the private sector instead of the public sector.  Another method is to find a way to put money into the hands of the very poor people to stimulate consumption.  Furthermore, can export factories move into domestic production ?  It is easier said than done as export products are not in demand by the local population.  In time, this transition will be made, the question is how quick?

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