Hugh White’s China Choice is a visionary book. Over the past two years, White has been among the most influential public intellectuals shaping the terms of the Australian debate on China’s rise. In style and clarity of thought, it is worth noting, White is unmatched. He possesses a superior ability to boil down complex conceptual issues into almost self-evident practical choices.
Typically, as former Prime Minister Paul Keating remarked, White writes with an impressive ability “to get to the nub of the issue with a great economy of words.” The Hugh White method is sharp, incisive, and powerful.
White’s ability to reduce complex phenomena is beyond doubt. But it may be a conceptual blinder.
The three choices White sees for America on China’s rise – fight, flight, or share power – first appeared in Power Shift, and are now feasibly aimed at an American audience in The China Choice. But some have already contested the basic assumptions underpinning White’s trio of strategic choices.
Does the U.S. really only have three fundamental options?
I was initially more skeptical of this assertion. But I find White’s elaboration of his vision of an Asian Concert of Power more convincing in this book than it was in Power Shift. What was abstract now has greater substance. A Concert of Power, as White defines it, is not about the elaborate institutional machinery which administers international organizations. It is fundamentally about power, and specifically about understandings reached between great powers to prevent unbridled power from leading to major war.
In other words, White is dismissive of international institutions that rest on the goodwill and professionalism of its civil servants, rather than on the power equation and understandings among its key members. I agree with White that an informal and durable understanding between the great powers on the prevention of large-scale war is worth a thousand League of Nations.
If a Concert of Asia is fundamentally about preventing war, rather than carving up of cynical percentages agreements – as it could easily, and dangerously, devolve into – then I am more convinced of this option. If, on the other hand, this Concert only served to carve up zero-sum spheres of influence in Asia, such as Chinese suzerainty over Vietnam, then I am convinced that it would lead to war anyway, and sooner rather than later.
In deliberating an issue as consequential as the prevention of war, we owe it to our grandchildren – as White defines statesmanship – to open up our minds to the universe of possible options.
Too frequently, I think we are constrained in our imaginative capacity to invent practical alternatives by solely thinking in broad brush terms of diplomatic orders, designs, and architecture; the proposed Concert of Asia is no exception. These types of long-term conflict prevention measures are clearly important. But the big picture blueprints are not the whole story. In White’s third option alone – the sharing of power – there are countless and more granular shades of grey.
Rather than only thinking as conceptual architects, to borrow Philipp Zelikow’s analogy, we should also act like technical engineers. To prevent war in Asia, we must plan the minutiae and mechanical moving parts of preventive measures, not just the floor plans.
Three “small” options serve to demonstrate this point.
The first potential measure is to encourage the great powers, such as the U.S. and China, to negotiate bilateral “firebreak” agreements. One such deal, suggested by Michael O’Hanlon and Richard C. Bush, would be a mutual understanding between the U.S. and China to fight any future war by conventional means, barring the early and escalatory threshold of nuclear strikes on either party. This is entirely feasible.
The second potential option for immediate risk reduction is to start drafting a U.S.-China Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA), as proposed by the Lowy Institute and others. A complementary confidence-building measure could be that of “submarine stand-off zones” in the South China Sea, and related agreements to regulate the quantity and quality of warships traversing it. An encouraging sign of the great powers’ ability to quietly defuse crises came with the recent revelation, as reported by the New York Times, that the Obama administration and China successfully negotiated a de-escalation of tensions in the Scarborough Shoal incident in May of this year. This is a positive precedent.
A third great power agreement, more ambitious but nevertheless within the realm of the possible, would be for potential antagonists to mutually agree to a “cooling off” period during any sharp escalation of conflict in order to establish facts, negotiate directly, and deescalate without losing face. Various proposals in the inter-war period suggested time buffers ranging from three months to a year, in which parties were bound to attempt the pacific settlement of disputes. Three days is more realistic.
An agreed-upon period of 72 hours in which disputants were bound to negotiate bilaterally, or with UN assistance by mutual invitation, might be enough to prevent catastrophe. In fact, this type of “time buffer” succeeded dramatically during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when President Kennedy asked UN Secretary General U Thant to buy accident-free negotiating time with the Soviets during a dangerous phase of tensions. With some foresight, a similar agreement could be reached today.
None of the above three measures can guarantee great power peace, of course, but neither can a Concert of Asia.
A fully-fledged Concert of Asia may truly be the holy grail of the prevention of war in Asia, if we accept the pessimistic premises about formal institutions which underpin White’s proposal. But there is no need to wait for this architectural plan to be built before exploring other concrete preventive options. The possible alternatives between White’s three choices are worth discussing.