An Australian + Singapore perspective on the concert of nations in the contemporary multipolar status quo.
Asad Latif with a book review of Australia National University Professor Hugh Whites’s The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power.
This is a thought-provoking book by a first-rate strategic intellectual. Still, some of White’s observations are questionable. Referring to the Monroe Doctrine – under which America reserved for itself a pre-eminent role in the Western Hemisphere that excluded sharing power with others – he implies that China could have a comparable doctrine in Asia. Asad Latif
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Coming to terms with China’s rise
America has three choices – resist China’s rise, withdraw from Asia, or agree to share power
By Asad Latif For The Straits Times
Source – Straits Times, published August 17, 2013 (subscription required)
The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power
publisher Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 191 pages
WAR between America and China is a clear and sufficient danger, the Australian strategic thinker Hugh White warns in this book. Both countries are formulating their military plans and building their forces specifically with the other in mind.
They are competing to garner support from other Asian countries. Ominously, they are viewing regional disputes such as in the South China Sea as terrains of rivalry.
Since a major Asian war could be the worst in history, the United States – the region’s preponderant power today – should avoid the calamity. So should China, which is fast catching up with America economically and capable of translating this power into military clout.
However, unlike the US, China does not see itself as the only great power in the international system. It does not seek to oust America from Asia, as America seeks to contain it in Asia. Hence, it is up to Washington to make overtures to Beijing that would prevent a catastrophic war.
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America has three choices. It could resist China’s rise, increasing the possibility of conflict. Or it could withdraw from Asia, leaving it to the tender mercies of China. Or it could share power with Beijing by “agreeing on a distribution of influence between them that concedes China the minimum with which it would be satisfied”.
The last option, which White prefers, would mean treating China as an equal in a shared regional leadership. The other Asian great powers – Japan, acting independently of the US; and India, which is nobody’s strategic client – could join America and China to form a quartet responsible for creating a Concert of Asia that would manage the painful but necessary transition of power from US primacy to Asian interdependence.
White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian Nationality University’s Strategic and Defence Centre and a regular contributor to this newspaper’s By Invitation column, advances his arguments with a convincing grasp of the economic, military and political factors that are closing the power gap between China and the US. For example, he is willing to concede that China’s “blitzkrieg” development strategy might not be sustainable forever, or that its Leninist political system could implode.
However, these are only plausible, not probable, scenarios. America should not construct its China strategy on wish-fulfilment but on what is most likely, he says: that the Chinese will continue to succeed and therefore become a greater challenge.
This is a thought-provoking book by a first-rate strategic intellectual. Still, some of White’s observations are questionable. Referring to the Monroe Doctrine – under which America reserved for itself a pre-eminent role in the Western Hemisphere that excluded sharing power with others – he implies that China could have a comparable doctrine in Asia.
But the key difference is that, while the United States established the doctrine in the 19th century, when its power was unquestionable, China would have to contend with no less than the US today to establish a cordon sanitaire in Asia. That is far from being a done deal.
A related, and more dangerous, argument that White advances is that America’s interests in Asia are not as compelling as its interests in Europe were during the Cold War. The inference from this asymmetry between Western Europe and Asia is that China probably will not be convinced that the US will practise extended nuclear deterrence, under which “the security of America’s allies is as vital to Washington as the security of America itself”, in this region.
This Chinese belief would leave America’s allies and security partners in this region vulnerable in the event of a nuclear war between the two powers.
The answer to this concern is that, if Asia were indeed dispensable or even peripheral to American security concerns about China, Washington would not have been likely to invest in the strategic “pivot” to Asia – and Asian countries would not have responded to it with the enthusiasm that many have shown.
Admittedly, nuclear calculations are another matter, but a successful balancing exercise in Asia would reduce the threat of all-out nuclear war considerably.
Ultimately, capabilities create intentions. As China’s economic and military capacity to rival the US grows, Asian countries are asking what Beijing’s intentions are. Whether the US, which most Asian nations see as a benign power, can accommodate China’s aspirations for leadership will depend on how benign its intentions are.
White is right in arguing for “a new order in which China’s authority and influence grows enough to satisfy the Chinese, and America’s role remains large enough to ensure that China’s power is not misused”. But what will satisfy an influential and assertive China? Only Beijing, and not Washington, can answer that question. Whatever the answer, the new international accommodation cannot take the form of the Concert of Asia among America, China, Japan and India which White pushes for.
The Concert of Europe that emerged from the 1815 Congress of Vienna ensured a century of peace among the great powers after the Napoleonic Wars. The Vienna settlement is justly credited with overcoming the frequent breakdowns of the 400-year-old balance of power system in Europe by giving the great powers a common stake in peace.
But replicating the European Concert in Asia today by excluding the interests of the medium and small powers would be both anachronistic and difficult to implement. Unlike imperial Europe in the early 19th century, Asia now is a continent of sovereign, democratic states whose populations are hardly likely to support a great-power concert that ignores or sacrifices their interests. Those concerns would be registered in their countries’ foreign policy.
On that score, what should worry Asian countries is the possibility of a secret understanding reached between America and China that casts adrift even Japan and India in the creation of a bipolar Asian order. One idea suggested in earlier years was for China to gain continental Asia as its exclusive sphere of influence, with America taking maritime Asia.
The parcelling out of Asia between an ascendant China and an America with the power to undermine that rise through war must be avoided at all costs. Doing so would involve Asian countries in a pan-regional concert.
The writer, a former Straits Times journalist, is an associate fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.