Rethinking U.S.-China Relations

Hugh White is a professor of strategic and defense studies at Australian National University, and author of the new book The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power. In a post for The Diplomat, he explains two choices facing U.S. policymakers regarding the “world’s most important bilateral relationship”, and outlines the policy suggestions at the center of his book:

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?

[…]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.

White suggests that the U.S. should be fashioning policies to accomodate China, rather than looking to contain the rising power, as Washington’s current “return to Asia” campaign has hinted at. In an earlier post from The Diplomat, fellow Australian security strategist Rory Medcalf expressed his concerns – point by point – with White’s approach to stability in the Asia Pacific:

[…]there remain troubling gaps in White’s recommendation – echoed this week by former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating – that U.S. allies and other third countries should urge America to set new limits on how and where it pushes back against China.

It is one thing to counsel Washington towards a supposedly new way of thinking in which it accepts clear limits to its interests and influence in Asia to help ensure peace. It is entirely another to nominate where the line should be drawn. This is the harder task, yet The China Choice is frustratingly guarded on this score.

At the heart of the book is an argument that the United States should partner with China in maintaining Asia’s stability through an exclusive ‘concert of powers’, and that this would include conceding to China a sphere of influence. […]

Also see a recent op-ed from The Australian, in which a colleague at Australian National University further expresses concern with White’s suggestions.

Offering a view from inside China, Caixin serves up policy advice from a Chinese academic. Looking at U.S. influence in regional maritime disputes over the South China Sea and Diaoyu Islands, Beijing Foreign Studies University fellow Wang Chong suggests that more transparency in Beijing could lessen the chance of conflict between the two superpowers:

[…]Of course, whether it’s the Diaoyu Islands or Huangyan Island, China ought to adhere to its principles in territorial disputes. More importantly, on the basis of upholding its principles, it should be more confident and more transparent.

With the continuing territorial disputes, China’s strategy might need to be clearer. Since a Sino-U.S. struggle is clearly unavoidable, China might as well set a clear objective and confidently inform America of its short-, medium- and long-term actions – and under what circumstances would China “no longer restraint itself.”

This will at least reduce the chance of miscalculation and accidental conflict, and also dissuade countries such as the Philippines from pursuing their wild fantasies.

For more on the relationship between Beijing and Washington, see prior CDT coverage.