Search for a safer path in the race for Asia

The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power, by Hugh White, Oxford University Press (RRP£16.99, RRP$24.95)

Scores of titles on every aspect of China’s rise continue to appear. Most rehearse familiar themes and debates. Hugh White’s The China Choice is a rare exception that breaks new ground. It is also written in exceptionally lucid prose that reflects a bracing clarity of thought.

White was once a senior official in the Australian Department of Defence and is now a university professor. His argument is essentially that the US is set on a collision course with China that could well end in war. To avoid a catastrophic conflict, both nations must change course. Each country needs to recognise that it cannot dominate Asia alone. Instead, the two need to reach an explicit agreement to share power.

Although White emphasises that both China and the US will have to make difficult decisions to reach such an agreement, he places the onus on the US to make the first move. This is not because he regards American primacy as a bad thing. On the contrary, he writes that US leadership in the region has led to a “golden age” and that “Asia’s success today ranks among the great achievements of the American century”. The problem is that the facts have changed. In the next decade, China will probably become the world’s largest economy – a position that the US has held since the mid-1880s.

The age of US primacy is coming to a close but China cannot displace America completely. Therein lies the danger. White writes that “any attempt by either Beijing or Washington to dominate will lead to sustained and bitter strategic rivalry, imposing huge economic costs and a real risk of catastrophic war”. And yet he argues that the US under President Barack Obama has clearly decided to reassert its primacy in Asia and, in effect, to “contain” China. He believes that such a policy is dangerous and must be rethought.

White is aware that each step in this argument is highly contentious. Perhaps the strongest section of the book is where he patiently dismantles the main objections to his thesis. These include the arguments that the Chinese economy will soon run into the ground; or that political instability will eventually cause China’s rise to go into reverse; or that the two countries are too economically interdependent for conflict to be conceivable.

These are not the only comfort blankets clutched by those who resist the notion that American primacy in Asia is under challenge. It is often said, too, that Beijing lacks friends and soft power – and that its army is not yet close to challenging the mighty US military machine.

White demonstrates convincingly why each of these arguments is weaker than it sounds. For example, he suggests that China’s increasing centrality to the economy of Asia is making its neighbours more reliant on Beijing’s goodwill. He also makes a convincing case that US dominance of the Pacific Ocean is based on aircraft carriers that are now extremely vulnerable to a new generation of Chinese weapons.

But while The China Choice makes a compelling case for both the inevitability and the danger of increased rivalry, its main policy recommendation is less convincing. As White acknowledges, there are ideological and political reasons why it is unlikely that the US will ever explicitly accept that “its unique leadership role is no longer feasible”. It also seems unlikely that, if and when China has an economy that is notably larger than that of the US, the country’s leadership will still quietly accept that their nation has to share leadership in Asia with distant America.

White’s model for his proposed “concert” of great powers in Asia (Japan and India are also included in his vision) is Europe after the fall of Napoleon in 1815. But, for better or worse, the days when great statesmen, bent over maps, could divide the world into spheres of influence are probably long gone. Even the Chinese leadership lives in a world of noisy public opinion, social media and satellite television.

Rather than White’s proposed power-sharing concert, it seems more likely that we will have to rely on a different combination of factors to maintain the peace in Asia. One of the few weaknesses of The China Choice is that it may be too dismissive of the capacity of nuclear deterrence to keep the peace. A combination of nukes, economic self-interest and balance-of-power politics – with the US rallying China’s anxious neighbours – is the likeliest formula for preventing war in the region. As White makes clear, this is an unstable and potentially unreliable blend. But it is probably the best we have got.

The writer is the FT’s chief foreign affairs correspondent

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