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Why a U.S.-China 'Grand Bargain' in Asia Would Fail (Page 3 of 3)

Turning to Japan, Professor White’s analysis and prescriptions hold a special and controversial place for North Asia’s second great power. Not only would Tokyo be outside a notional Chinese sphere of influence. Along with India, Japan would join China and America among the big four, a so-called concert of powers to set the rules of stability for everyone in the new Asian order.

To do so with confidence, though, Japan’s security posture would need drastic surgery. For the U.S. to durably share power with China without constantly having to manage Japanese anxieties, there would need to be a termination of the U.S.-Japan alliance, at least as we know it. Japan would then almost certainly need its own nuclear weapons to deter any possible future Chinese (or presumably North Korean) nuclear blackmail, though whether the Japanese polity could ever make such a radical shift is unclear.

Of course, how China, South Korea or the global non-proliferation regime might respond to that game-changer would be a whole new cascade of conundrum.  The end of the Washington-Tokyo alliance could also have large and unsettling consequences for other U.S. alliances in Asia and globally.

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But returning to the concert of powers: White crafts a smart case for adapting this 19th century European invention to 21st century Asia.  This is not the first time the concert idea has been examined in the Asian security debate. White, however, has gone further than others in refining and boldly endorsing it as the least bad solution to Asia’s strategic ills.

What remains uncertain is how his concert of four might come into being.  From the original post-Napoleonic concert of powers in Europe to the 1945 victors’ club of the United Nations Security Council, such arrangements have coalesced only after cataclysmic war.

The standard criticism of a concert of powers is that it is a club of the powerful setting the rules for all in the name of stability, often at the expense of the rest. In short, it is not fair. White makes a strong case that this injustice is a reasonable price to avoid the kind of great-power war that in an interconnected world would bring grief to all. Since his and my own middle-power country Australia is one that would miss out on a seat at the concert table, his analytical detachment here is commendable.

But most nations would hardly embrace the idea with equanimity.  How might so many countries in Asia and beyond be persuaded to consent to the writ of just four? Would a non-interference pact among Washington, Beijing, New Delhi and Tokyo extend across their increasingly global interests? If so, what would be the downside for others, not least Europe and Russia? If not, how might the United States and China avoid clashes of interests in, say, the Middle East or Africa?

So many questions. It is to Hugh White’s credit that his book raises them. If it stirs its readers from silence, complacency or smugness about the policies of the moment, it will have done its work.

He is right of course that a changing Asia faces troubled times ahead. Regardless of whether peace will require grand and parsimonious diplomatic blueprints, it will certainly need much else that is in uneven supply, including smart statesmanship, dogged crisis-management and the kind of operational confidence-building measures that kept the Cold War cold.

Peace will also be advanced by habits of mutual respect, open-mindedness about compromise and a focus on shared interests – features, incidentally, of President Obama’s early efforts to engage China, where White neglects to give due credit.

White is harsh on Obama, especially for moments of confrontational rhetoric which could be taken as denigrating the legitimacy of the Chinese system and its historic achievement in improving the welfare of so many people (“prosperity without freedom is another form of poverty”.)

But then The China Choice is all about fronting America with the kind of frank and unsolicited advice that only a friend can give and a democracy can take.

 ​Rory Medcalf is director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute, Australia

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