He works through many of the states in Asia – from South Korea to Japan to Southeast Asia and India – suggesting reasons why America would not wish to risk war by fully backing them up in a crisis, and why they themselves would be unlikely to join America in somebody else’s fight with China. If solidarity is really so thin, then China can cease fretting about perceived American strategies of encirclement.
This line of analysis also seems somewhat at odds with another of the book’s judgments: that even if the United States withdrew from Asia, Chinese dominance would be impossible because the rest of Asia collectively could balance against Beijing. If most Asian nations genuinely see the risks outweighing the benefits in helping America balance against China now, what would change their minds in the even more fragile setting of American retrenchment?
The real problem, though, with The China Choice is also one of its virtues: the sheer neatness of its argument.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
It calls for a new order in which China’s authority and influence grow enough to satisfy the Chinese, while America’s role remains large enough to ensure China’s power is not misused.
This elegant formula downplays the realities faced by the many other nations across Indo-Pacific Asia that place as much premium as China does on their own security and national dignity.
To be fair, White does not deny that it will be exceptionally hard for America and China to negotiate mutually acceptable limits that would make their power-sharing arrangement possible or stable.
Conscious that his idea is vulnerable to being caricatured as something like appeasement, he underscores that Washington would need to be absolutely firm and clear to China about these boundaries. Otherwise, there would be real risks – as he acknowledges – of initial American concessions giving China the false expectation of more, and leading potentially to war through miscalculation.
So far, so good. But what might those limits be? It may be unreasonable to expect one author to have all the answers on what Chinese and American spheres of influence would look like in a changed Asia. After all, this is not purely about drawing lines on a map but also about fine judgment regarding permissible Chinese and American policies towards third parties and their domestic affairs.
Still, it is disappointing that, having identified some sort of Chinese sphere of influence as necessary for great-power peace, the book devotes just a few paragraphs to the “complex and delicate question” — some would say the crucial question — of what this space would look like.
A workable sphere of influence, we are told, cannot directly affect the vital interests of other great powers. Most Asian countries are not named as candidates for being within the sphere. The potential status of the Koreas and Burma, for instance, is not made clear. Japan is explicitly excluded, since trying to include one great power in another’s sphere of influence would void the whole concert idea and lead to dangerous instability.
Only Indochina is held out as a demonstration of what might need to be on the table. The political autonomy of Laos, or part thereof, is given as an example of what might reasonably be conceded in the interests of avoiding U.S.-China rivalry. This is hardly shocking news, being not far off a description of that country’s present status.
Next the question of Vietnam is raised and left unanswered. One suspects the Vietnamese would have their own answers and on this issue, at least, they get a vote.
Moving to the South China Sea, “to concede that would be to concede more than is compatible with the vital interests of other great powers”. Agreed – but there is no sign of China’s abandoning or even being willing to negotiate its sweeping claims in those waters, reinforced of late by the establishment of an island city and garrison.
And if preventing coercion of other claimants in the South China Sea is in fact at the non-negotiable limit of American accommodation of China, then the grand bargain is already looking like a non-starter.
On China’s part, would it really settle for a sphere of influence amounting to not much more than a bit of Indochina? And if it would, then why all the fuss?
Of course a comprehensive attempt at defining workable boundaries for hypothetical U.S. and Chinese spheres of influence would require another whole book. And the impression from the present volume is that drawing these lines would be a job for American and Chinese statecraft.
But this means that for the time being we have to make do with an assumption, rather than proof, that some kind of stable demarcation of U.S. and Chinese spheres of influence in 21st century Asia will be possible. And if such an outcome proves elusive, then we are back to finding ways of managing the risks of the here and now.
One area where White’s conclusions are most challenging to the status quo is that most literal of China choices, the future of Taiwan. He points to the diminution of America’s credibility in being able militarily to defend Taiwan, thanks to China’s new maritime anti-access capabilities and the possibility of nuclear escalation. “The U.S. can no longer prevent China from seizing Taiwan by force,” he writes.
But what U.S. policy might replace it? The given answer is that the U.S. ought to encourage “eventual, peaceful, consensual reunification”. That may well where present trends of cross-strait economic and social links are headed. But relying solely on this prospect is as much a hope as a policy.