07 August 2012

Hugh White on the strategic US-China relationship

Australian realist scholar and security studies professor at ANU, Dr Hugh White (above, known for his critique from a just-war perspective of the US-led war in Iraq) has a fine piece up at the East Asia Forum on the strategic relationship between the United States and China, as well as what the assumptions and ramifications are of the continued relationship, and what needs to be done to maintain it. For all I tend to be critical of each country (often for similar reasons), I do think that a healthy relationship between China and the US is in the best interests (long-term) of both countries. I think Dr White is very astute here, and highlights quite well what the actual stakes are, in a way which does credit to his fellow realists. (Dr Andrew Bacevich made a very similar argument in his book, The Limits of Power.)

Here are some excerpts:
Washington’s message to Beijing is that everything will be fine, as long as China agrees to do things America’s way. If not, America will use ‘every element of America’s power’ to pull it into line. Don’t believe me? Go back and read President Obama’s big speech in Canberra last November, and ask yourself how it sounds to Chinese ears — which are the ones that really matter.

The problem is that China will not accept America’s pre-conditions for a good relationship, and the more its wealth and power grows relative to America’s, the more willing Beijing will be to make that plain. The rest of us might regret that, but we can hardly be surprised by it, and we cannot wish it away.

If America insists on maintaining the status quo of US primacy as China’s power and ambitions grow, escalating strategic rivalry with China is close to a certainty.

There are many different ways for America to stay in Asia over coming decades. The most obvious third alternative is to remain actively engaged, not as the sole primary power in the Asian strategic system but as one of a group of equal great powers. There are a lot of questions about how such a system might be built and sustained, but the essence of the idea is perfectly simple. The US could remain in Asia to balance China’s power and prevent Chinese domination, without dominating Asia itself. And if the two powers could reach a tacit or explicit agreement to respect and accept each other’s position as a great power, then there is no reason why they should not live in harmony.

This kind of order would clearly be in both countries’ interests, and in the interests of the whole region. But it requires big sacrifices from both America and China. China would have to forgo its ambitions to lead Asia itself, and America would have to be willing to relinquish primacy and deal with China as an equal. There is no point pretending this would be easy for Americans.

Eventually, if America is to get China right, a president will have to stand up and explain the alternatives. If Americans will not deal with China as an equal, they will compete with it as an adversary. Dealing with it as an equal would be risky, uncomfortable and sometimes distasteful. Competing with it as an adversary would quite probably be disastrous. The longer the decision is delayed the harder it will become to avoid the worse outcome. America’s China choice cannot long be delayed.
Actually, one may readily note a few of the ironies here; notably the Sinocentric model of international relations which was challenged in the Late Imperial period and the ways in which China was brought up sharply against events which utterly shattered that model fuelled all of its subsequent developments. Now, the tables are turned somewhat. Ultimately, if we as a society do not discard the neocon / liberal-interventionist wet dream of a Pax Americana, dominated by American capitalist and liberal-democratic values, in favour of something more realistic, we may end up finding ourselves in for a relatively nasty shock, same as Late Imperial China had been.

No comments:

Post a Comment