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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

That seems to be wishful thinking.  China accepted American primacy when America was many times richer and stronger than China.  Now that the balance of relative power has changed, China’s ambitions have expanded.  It would be very surprising if they hadn’t.  Moreover those ambitions go very deep, fuelled by nationalism.  There is no reason to assume that China is not just as committed to changing the status quo to increase its influence as America is to preserving the status quo to maintain its influence.  So there is no reason to assume that China will just back down, and more than America will.

This means that, unless America is willing to withdraw from Asia, it does face a choice between accommodating China or competing with it.  Some people – like Professor Aaron Friedberg of Princeton – see the probability of rivalry but argue against seeking an accommodation with China because they think the costs of accommodation would be higher than those of rivalry.  This may turn out to be true, because it partly depends on how much we would have to concede to China to reach an accommodation.

But those who argue that we should not even seek an accommodation must assume that the costs of any possible deal with Beijing would outweigh the costs of rivalry.  That view seems to me to imply a very serious underestimation of the kind of rivalry we might be talking about and where it might lead.  As a rival, China is already the most formidable country America has every faced, because it is economically stronger relative to America than any country has been in over a century.  A war with China would be hard to contain, and could swiftly become bigger than anything since the Second World War, dwarfing Vietnam and Korea.  There would be a real chance of escalation to nuclear exchanges from which U.S. cities might not be spared.  These risks must weigh very seriously in any policy debate.  It is hard to argue that they do not justify at least exploring the possibility of accommodation with China.

This brings us then to the second choice America faces – how far should the U.S. go in trying to accommodate China?  What kind of regional order, and how much Chinese influence, should Washington be willing to accept, as the price for avoiding rivalry and reducing the risk of conflict?   I think this question is relatively easy to answer in the abstract, but much harder to answer in detail.

Giving a broad answer must start with an understanding of what China might settle for.  It makes no sense to agree to explore some kind of accommodation with China unless we are willing to at least consider conceding enough to meet Beijing’s minimum demands.  My working hypothesis is that the least China will accept as a satisfactory basis for Asia’s strategic order over the next few decades is a position of equality with the U.S. – an equal sharing of power between the region’s strongest states.

To many Americans and others this will seem like a very big concession indeed, but I doubt it would look like that from China’s perspective.  I think most Chinese probably hope that as China overtakes the U.S. to become the world’s richest state they will take over from the U.S. as the sole leading power in Asia, and would be very disappointed to settle for mere equal status with America, and perhaps with other great powers as well.

In fact Beijing would only settle for this if it was absolutely clear that the U.S. and other Asian countries would actively oppose a Chinese bid for a larger role, entailing big costs and risks.  My hunch is that China would be willing to accept these costs and risks to gain equal status with the U.S., but not to gain primacy over the U.S.  So while we cannot be sure that China will settle for equality, we can be sure it will not settle for less.

Could America concede that much?  In The China Choice I conclude that U.S. core interests in Asia could be protected under this kind of order, because the U.S. would stay engaged in Asia and could constrain the way China used its power.  But allowing this much strategic space to China would nonetheless be very difficult politically for American leaders.  Indeed it would be unprecedented.  America has never dealt with another country in this way before.  On the other hand, America has never had to deal with a country as strong as China before, so it is perhaps inevitable that dealing with China will take America into new, uncharted and perhaps uncomfortable territory.

My book does not suggest that treating China as an equal would be easy for America.  It would be very hard, and America should only consider it if the consequences of not doing so were very grave.  My argument is that the consequences of rivalry with China are very grave indeed.

Finally, then, we have to explore in more detail how this kind of new order in Asia, built on a relationship of equality between the U.S. and China, could work.  This is a very hard question.  Any such order, if it could be constructed, would be uniquely shaped by the negotiations and understandings that brought it into being.  However, in my book I try to provide ideas about the form it might take by drawing an analogy between the kind of order that could emerge in Asia between a number of great powers of equal status and the Concert of Europe that evolved in the 19th century.  I think that offers a starting point for thinking about how it might function.

But how all this might work worries Rory Medcalf, and he raises several legitimate queries in his essay.  Let me touch on a few of them, starting with the question of “spheres of influence.”  I must say it worries me too, which is why I addressed it in the book.  Should we be willing, as part of a broader settlement, to concede to any of the great powers in a Concert of Asia, a “sphere of influence” in the old-fashioned sense of a privileged status in regard to a number of neighboring states?  My tentative conclusion – reached reluctantly – was that we might, as long as it did not infringe on the vital interests of other great powers in the system.

That might mean we could, reluctantly, accept spheres of influence to China and India on mainland Asia, but not over the Western Pacific where Japanese and American vital interests are at stake.  As their power grows this might be no more than accepting the inevitable.  Some will be shocked at this tolerance for such a 19th century concept, but what after all is America’s Monroe Doctrine, or Australia’s policy of strategic exclusion in the South West Pacific, but claims to spheres of influence?

Second, Rory worries about Japan.  So do I.  My hunch is that Japan and India, which I see as both being great powers in the Asian system, must join any Concert of Asia as full and equal members if it is to work.  As Rory notes, I accept the implication that this means Japan would have to emerge as a nuclear power.  Of course I agree that this would be immensely difficult both regionally and domestically.  I would welcome any suggestions about other ways in which Japan might fit into a new Asian order which did not require it either to remain a strategic client of America, become a strategic client of China, or become an independent nuclear power.  I can’t think of any, and so on balance I think it may be the least bad outcome.

Third, Rory worries about the fate of Asia’s middle and smaller powers if the great powers get together and organize the region between themselves. This too is a real problem.  But the point I make in the book is that it may be better than the alternative, even for the small and middle powers themselves.  The rests of us, including Australia, have to ask ourselves whether we would be better off with the great powers doing deals, or being rivals.  The old ASEAN joke has it that the ants get squashed whether the elephants fight or make love.  In fact, however, they get squashed much flatter when the elephants fight.

And finally, Rory wonders how this Concert could possibly come about.  The diplomacy seems impossibly difficult, and it will be something of a miracle if, somehow, this kind of order can be conjured into being.  The only reason to think it might happen is that the consequences of not doing so would be so disastrous for everyone.  Even so, I do not predict it will happen, I only hope it will.

Hugh White is the author of the new book  The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power . The book is available on Black Inc.’s website here.  He is professor of strategic studies at ANU and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute.   

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief