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Debate: Hugh White's 'The China Choice'

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Sometimes book launches can be memorable for what the invited talent says about the book and the writer. Back in 2006 Paul Keating launched George Megalogenis' The Longest Decade with this:

Would I write a better book? Well, of course I would. I write better than George and I know more. But George is not me and he is not John Howard and his third party view is worth something. Is it worth the world? No. But is it worth something? Indeed, it is.

Keating was in a far more generous and serious mood this morning, praising richly Hugh White's book and quoting from it extensively (as Michael Fullilove tweeted: 'Shorter Keating on Hugh White's The China Choice: buy this book.'). Keating did not put any space between himself and White's views, as another admirer of White's work, Malcolm Turnbull, did in his review in The Monthly. This was an outright endorsement.

But Keating did emphatically put space between himself and both sides of Australian politics on the question of our alliance with America, as Dan Flitton reports in his coverage of the speech.

Over the last five years, this site has been a near-constant space for debate about Hugh White's work. His ideas inspire reactions from fellow strategists, politicians and the public in a way that no other Interpreter contributor does. So grab yourself a copy of the book, and let the discussion commence.

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Dr John Blaxland is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

Hugh White's recently released book, The China Choice, is an enjoyable read, capturing much of what he has blogged about on The Interpreter over the last couple of years in relation to the US and China and taking into account a number of the comments posted in response. It goes to show that blogging is a good proving ground for a work like this!

Hugh's argument focuses on what he sees as the need for an American accommodation over the rise of China, particularly in the Western Pacific. And in many ways the argument is compelling. But early on in the book he admits that senior Americans, including Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, have begun making overtures along the lines he advocates. This suggests his central thesis is no longer as controversial as it once would have appeared. Most would agree that this is an encouraging sign.

Hugh challenges the strategic utility of the Air-Sea Battle concept espoused recently as a military counterpoint to China's expanding military capabilities. Yet Air-Sea Battle is in effect a rebadged version of a long held American plan for the defence of Taiwan, should it ever come to that. Arguably this is not that contentious and the Chinese know it. Further, Hugh criticises the plan, but doesn't offer a viable alternative. Arguably, the maintenance of robust plans along these lines are what is needed to give the US leverage to hold the very dialogue with China that Hugh rightly encourages. As Teddy Roosevelt would say, 'speak softly but carry a big stick'.

At times I also wondered whether the audience was intended to be American or Australian, particularly given the frequent reference to inclusive terms like 'we' and 'us' alternating with outsider references to 'the Americans'. It reads some of the time like it's intended for Americans to read, but then again, perhaps the main audience is Australian.

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Yet perhaps the most striking omission from the book is the question of where he thinks Australia should stand in relation to this grand choice. We know that Hugh has tended to be sceptical about increased US engagement with Australia, most notably saying 'no thanks' to the heightened Marine presence in Darwin. Yet arguably this is the most important question arising from his thesis for an Australian audience.

I have argued elsewhere that the question boils down to this: in seeking to influence both the Americans and Chinese in their deliberations over the China Choice, should Australia shun or embrace the US? In other words, should Australia accommodate China at the expense of its US ties?

I would argue that, given our investment in the relationship, and the long, deep, and enduring intelligence and security ties (let alone the cultural predispositions) between Australia and the US, our best hope to exert any influence over the Choice is to further embrace rather than shun our US ally.

There are three issues behind this argument. First, Australia can best encourage China to appreciate the enduring significance of US power in maintaining the rules-based global order we have all come to rely upon if Australia makes it clear that it remains strongly committed to supporting that order. To say otherwise would be to embolden those in China with more belligerent tendencies and undermine the resolve of the Americans to continue seeking to play a constructive and restrained role in the numerous outstanding regional disputes.

Second, Australia can best encourage an American accommodation with China by maintaining the confidence and access to speak frankly, openly and helpfully to friends in Washington. Prevaricating will get us nowhere.

Third, a clear stand in support of the US alliance helps make clear to China that Australia sees support for the US alliance as a legitimate, reasonable and constructive contribution to that order. Indeed, this view is shared by many of Australia's security partners across East and Southeast Asia. That isn't about to change any time soon.

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Many thanks to my ANU colleague Ian Hall for his post over on his own blog about my new book, The China Choice. Ian raises two concerns about the way I use the concept of primacy to characterise the place in Asia that America has enjoyed for the last forty years and at present seems determined to maintain.

First, he says that I do not define 'primacy' in the book in any precise way, and he is right. So let me try to explain here what I mean by it. As I wrote the book I was working with a definition I framed last year in response to a similar query posted here on The Interpreter by Stephan Fruehling.  The definition I offered Stephan was as follows:

A relationship between a country and an international system in which that country has a qualitatively different and greater role than any other country in the system in setting norms of behaviour, determining when those norms have been breached, and taking action to enforce them.

In fact, I had something like this in the early draft of The China Choice, but perhaps unwisely I sacrificed it to save space. Then, soon after the final text went to the publisher, I found myself re-reading The Anarchical Society for a speech on Hedley Bull I was doing at Sydney University. I came across a definition of primacy which I'm sure Ian, as one of Australia's foremost experts on Bull, will know well. It's in Chapter 9, p.214 of my edition, and Bull says:

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A great power's preponderance in relation to a group of lesser states takes the form of primacy when it is achieved without any resort to force or the threat of force, and with no more than the ordinary degree of disregard for the norms of sovereignty...

I think this and the surrounding text captures rather better what I had in mind, because it embodies both the idea of preponderance and the element, so critical to the US position in Asia since 1972, of willing acquiescence by lesser states. On this definition, my catch-phrase 'uncontested primacy' becomes a tautology.

Second, Ian doubts that America has exercise primacy since 1972, or claims it today. I think this boils down to a question about whether the US has exercised and still seeks enough preponderance to qualify as primacy in the way Bull defines it. I think it does, because while it has not been able to set the rules unilaterally, it has claimed, and been conceded by others, a uniquely large role in setting the rules.

But if that doesn't satisfy Ian's conditions for primary, I'm happy to use another word. The key point for my argument is that, whatever we call it, the role America has claimed and still claims in Asia is one that China will not continue to accept as its power grows.

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Ian Hall is a Senior Fellow in the Department of International Relations, ANU.

Hugh White is characteristically generous in responding to a blog post of mine about his use of the term 'primacy' in The China Choice. I hope he'll forgive a response and a widening of the discussion.

I agree with Hugh (and with Hedley Bull) that 'primacy' means 'preponderance in relation to a group of lesser states...achieved without any resort to force or the threat of force, and with no more than the ordinary degree of disregard for the norms of sovereignty...'

Does the US enjoy this kind of status in today's Asia Pacific? And does it aim to retain it? These questions are consequential for both Hugh's argument and for Australian foreign policy. If America does have primacy and wants to keep it, the risk of a serious clash with China is high. But if it plays a lesser role and intends to be flexible, we need not be as concerned as Hugh thinks we should.

For Hugh, the answers to these questions are 'yes' and 'probably', unless Australia can persuade the Americans otherwise. This is where, I think, we disagree.

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Does America enjoy primacy? I'm not sure. First, I'd argue that US does not enjoy a 'preponderance' of power in today's Asia Pacific, and has not done since 1972. Nixon's trip to China was an acknowledgment that America could not win in Vietnam and, by extension, that it would no longer fight land wars in most of mainland Asia. It signaled a shift to a strategy of qualified offshore balancing – 'qualified' because of the continued presence of US troops in South Korea and Japan, but 'offshore' because it does not envisage the use of land forces outside the Korean peninsula. The 'pivot' does not change this strategy.

Second, I doubt America has ever been regarded as a legitimate rule-giver and -enforcer in the Asia Pacific. Sometimes it gets what it wants through persuasion, but often it doesn't, and then it has to rely on the threat of force. Threats and not persuasion are what the US uses to deter China from invading Taiwan and North Korea from attacking the South.

Hugh himself points to this 'legitimacy gap' in The China Choice (pp. 82-100), noting, rightly, that few if any Asia Pacific powers would defend American 'primacy' if the US decided to press that claim and China decided to resist. None of the major players – India, Japan, Russia and certainly not China – consider such an aspiration achievable or reasonable.

More importantly, I think, nor does the US. This is clearest not in US policy towards China, but towards India. Like China, India's strategic objectives do not always align with America's; also like China, India wants a multipolar international order to replace an American unipolar one. Yet for a decade the US has openly and enthusiastically aided India's rise, refraining from criticism even when (in climate talks or the UNSC) India acts contrary to American interests.

Washington, in other words, is happy to 'share power' with New Delhi, accommodating India even when it frustrates US policy. So why won't the US do that with China? Hugh implies (I think) that America is too short-sighted or too stubborn to relinquish its primacy. The India case points to a different explanation.

America can't share power with China, let alone cede East and South East Asia to China as its 'sphere of influence', because China's intentions are simply too uncertain and its political system too opaque. For those reasons, flexible 'congagement' rather than concert surely must remain the best strategy for coping with China's rise.

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Ian Hall has raised some excellent points in his latest post in our debate about whether the US exercises primacy in Asia, and what that means for how it should respond to China's rise. Five quick points in response...

First, Ian doubts that America has had the power to impose primacy on Asia. I agree. I say in The China Choice somewhere that US primacy in Asia has depended as much on Asian countries' acquiescence as on America's power to impose, which is why America only gained primacy after China acquiesced to it in 1972. And of course, that is in the nature of primacy, which is the point of Hedley Bull's definition.

Second, I therefore don't agree with Ian that the US posture in Asia is a form of offshore balancing. I take offshore balancing to be what Britain supposedly did in relation to Europe in the era in which Europe's strategic order was characterised by a balance of power system. It stood aloof from the struggle for preponderance on the continent unless or until one side or the other seemed likely to win, when it intervened to prevent that by supporting the weaker side.

I'm not sure Britain ever really did act that way, but it is a plausible model which, I suggest in the book, the US could adopt in relation to Asia. But it would be very different from what it has done these last four decades, or indeed for the last century and more. America has been intimately and continuously engaged in managing the strategic balance in Asia by suppressing strategic competition between its great powers. Nothing 'offshore' about it.

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Indeed I think the 'offshore' label is confusing. The US has been an offshore power in that, as Ian reminds us, it has never (since the Boxer Rebellion) been a major strategic force on the mainland of Asia. But from its maritime position it has, with Asia's permission, actively shaped Asia's strategic order. So America has been physically offshore, but not offshore in the sense of 'disengaged'. 

Third, Ian doubts that the US has been an effective rule-giver in Asia. I can see where he is coming from, and there may be an interesting debate about how far the US has actually shaped the Asian order over the past forty years. But what matters for the future of US-China relations is not the reality, but perceptions: how the US sees its role, and how China sees the way the US sees its role. Here I think it is clear that the US sees itself as having designed, built and maintained the liberal order in Asia, and it wants to keep on doing that. China sees the US as seeing its role that way, and wants that to change.

Fourth, and in the same vein, I'm not sure Ian's account of the US-India relationship quite captures the way Americans see it. My impression is that Washington has cultivated New Delhi precisely because it has expected India to support its vision of America's leadership in Asia against the challenge from China. I think America is wrong to expect India to behave this way, but that's the way they see it – and that's what is driving US policies, and China's too.

Finally, and most importantly, Ian says America can't share power with China because China's intentions are too uncertain and its political system is too opaque. The debating point here is that Ian's conclusion undercuts his earlier argument that the US does not exercise primacy and is already sharing power. 

But the deeper point really gets to the heart of the argument I set out in The China Choice. Many things about China make it difficult for Washington to share power with Beijing, but 'can't' is a big word. The question is, what will it cost not to share power with China? Recognising the costs and risks of rivalry is the core to the whole issue. I think the costs are grave.

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America's senior Asia diplomat, Kurt Campbell, made an intervention yesterday in the debate generated by Hugh White's The China Choice and the speech former Prime Minister Paul Keating made at the book launch.

Campbell deployed a familiar straw man, saying that he wanted to 'reject out of hand' that the US was in decline: 'The US is going to be a dynamic and powerful player in Asia for many decades to come.' Australian politicians are also fond of that line, as if it's some kind of killer blow to the arguments made by Keating and White. But I doubt either of them contest the simple fact that the US will remain a global power for the foreseeable future.

Campbell's more important criticism was that the power-sharing arrangement which critics like White and Keating call for is already coming into being. From Peter Hartcher's article:

He said that "no country has taken more trouble to engage with China" than the US. If anything, the US had been giving China more responsibility in global affairs than it was comfortable with. "Look at the role they play in international relations in the global economy, look at the role they play across the spectrum," he said, citing Iran, Syria, North Korea and issues of nuclear non-proliferation. "You name it, there are ample opportunities for China to play a larger role in politics."

He said that "not just the US but every country in Asia is seeking to have more space for China".

Malcolm Turnbull made a similar point yesterday during the Canberra launch of The China Choice.

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In the artificially narrow categories that have long demarcated the world of Australian strategy, Hugh White and Paul Dibb are sometimes lumped closely together. As former senior officials and now professors at ANU, each has played an influential role both in designing defence self-reliance for Australia and establishing that concept as the nominal, if not always actual, basis of Canberra's defence planning.

Yet their outlooks are different. And when it comes to the growth of Chinese power, the evolution of the region's security order and the optimal means by which to preserve Asia's long peace, the two are worlds apart.

In a recent rejoinder to White's new book, The China Choice, Dibb takes issue with the prescription for accommodating China through a power-sharing arrangement akin to the post-Napoleonic European Concert. He also dismisses much of the analysis from which that prescription derives. Where White sees the likely alternative as a combustible hegemonic rivalry, prone to escalatory pressures and crises and aggravated by different calculations of interest, risk and reward, Dibb is considerably more sanguine.

That optimism seems to stem from a particular reading of the Cold War: as an episode that was both more dangerous and intense than the emergent Sino-US rivalry, but which consistently defied worst-case predictions, whether because of luck or a mutual understanding about the costs of conflict, until it reached a largely peaceful conclusion. The lessons were clear and salutary: the US had held firm in the face of a challenger, even intensifying competition as it dropped the more conciliatory aspects of détente. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, buckled under the pressure.

Having cut his teeth in that heady era, and taking the Soviet Union and its military power as his reference point, Dibb thus sees little cause for concern today. Not in China's evolving capabilities, which he maintains are over-hyped, or in its interactions with the US, whose military preponderance and strategic commitments are, he suggests, as assured as ever. This isn't an uncommon view among Cold Warriors, for whom nothing is ever likely to look as scary as the Soviet Union.

But just as Cold War notions of 'containment' don't adequately capture  the dynamics of US strategy today, there are, I think, limits to how useful  the Cold War is as an analogue and predictor of the intensity of the emerging US-China rivalry. In particular, there are two reasons to be sceptical about Dibb's optimism.

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First, as White himself has pointed out many times, in economic terms (which is what really matters) China is already more powerful relative to the US than the Soviet Union ever was. The Soviet Union might have been a strategic behemoth, but its military strength belied a defunct political and economic system and a limited population and industrial base that precluded its ability to keep up. While Soviet central planners channeled extraordinary resources into armoured divisions, submarines, and nuclear weapons, with an anaemic industrial base, all of this became less a source of strength than an unsustainable economic burden.

China's fundamentals are immeasurably better. With its massive population and virtually inexhaustible labour force, as well as policies to harness its productive capacity, China's unprecedented growth portends its emergence within a decade or so as the most powerful superpower in history. Beijing has also learned from the Soviet experience. Although it has been slower than the Soviet Union to translate wealth into military power, economic success has allowed China to sustain annual double digit increases in defence spending without imposing a crippling economic encumbrance on its society.

Second, and almost always overlooked when Cold War comparisons are made, China is a more dissatisfied power than was the Soviet Union. Why? Because it lacks the kind of 'strategic space' that the Soviet Union enjoyed from 1945 onwards, with all the attendant benefits in security and prestige this conferred. Of course, strategic dominance in Eastern Europe was not actively ceded to the Soviet Union. It was taken by force as the Red Army pushed Nazi Germany west across the continent, and so was a fait accompli by the time allied forces arrived in Berlin. But once established, it was respected and accommodated by the West as an inviolable buffer and Soviet sphere of influence.

China has no equivalent, except for North Korea. Even the maritime boundary that separates Beijing from its main rivals is subject to American military intrusion as well as war planning that aims to deny China the capacity to contest, much less control, the waters along its direct maritime periphery.

Taiwan lies just off the east coast, a permanent reminder of Chinese weakness, and Japan not far beyond that. To the south, Vietnam and the Philippines are actively contesting China's maritime claims, enlisting ASEAN and the US to help ratchet up the pressure on Beijing. Further south still, Australia has eagerly embraced a more confrontational form of US hegemony, symbolised for now by the deployment of US Marines to Darwin.

While I've always had my doubts about the feasibility of Hugh White's model for a Concert of Asia, I'm under no illusions about the dangers of the alternative. If the Cold War constituted an intense rivalry with a country that was both much less powerful than China and much less geopolitically hemmed in, it's hard to avoid one conclusion: we're in for a turbulent century.

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