Power sharing and risk management in Hugh White’s ‘China Choice’
28 Feb 2014|

Can the US and China share power?

Hugh White argues in his book China Choice that the United States should share power with China. Perhaps the starkest aspect of his proposal is that it requires real and substantive concessions to be negotiated with the Middle Kingdom. There’s no wishful thinking about China being happy as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in Hugh’s view, and there’s no place at the table for middle powers such as Australia either. His is a security architecture built around olde worlde great power politics.

As an example of what that might look like, Hugh sketches out a ‘concert of Asia’ involving America, China, Japan, India and perhaps Indonesia. In doing so, he outlines seven ‘understandings’, with which the members of the concert would probably have to agree, including ‘fully accept[ing] the legitimacy of the political systems of all the others’. What’s more, he identifies Japan’s re-emergence as a great power in its own right (i.e. independent of the United States) as a likely precondition for a concert to be workable. None of this would be easy; in fact it might not even be possible.

If power sharing can be achieved, it certainly won’t be pretty. The fundamental basis of Hugh’s scheme entails compromises in favour of Chinese interests. Indeed, the term ‘power sharing’ is at best incomplete and potentially misleading in this context. In a previous generation, prior to the taint of history, the word ‘appeasement’ would have arisen in the discussion.

What exactly China might demand is hard to anticipate, and Hugh is imprecise on the limits to be imposed on concessions. Although he mentions the UN Charter with its restraint on the use of force—at least between those sharing power—he also says that small and middle powers would be ‘vulnerable to the predations of the great powers’. In any case, it’d be hard to be optimistic about continued Taiwanese independence under a power sharing arrangement with China.

So we have a proposal which would be both difficult to achieve and worrying in its consequences. To his credit, Hugh doesn’t pretend otherwise. Instead, he argues that we should work towards what he calls power sharing because it’s vastly preferable to what he sees as the alternatives: US withdrawal from the region or escalating US-Sino rivalry with an attendant risk of catastrophic war.

I think that it’s fair to say that Hugh’s analysis of the strategic environment has been proven prescient by recent events. Nonetheless, and despite wide exposure, it’s equally fair to say that his proposal is yet to garner serious policy traction in Australia or the United States. But the game isn’t over; Hugh will undoubtedly continue trying to convince US audiences of the imperative to share power with China.

The question of what Australia should do naturally arises. The answer depends on how convincing you find Hugh’s argument. I’m unconvinced, but that’s a story for another day. Instead, I want to explore an issue in risk management that arises for Australia from Hugh’s proposal for the United States. (His prescription for Australia is set out in his Quarterly Essay Power Shift.) If musing about risk seems an esoteric diversion, forgive me, but I think it’s central to any serious discussion of strategy. Here goes…

Let’s stipulate for the purpose of argument that power sharing is the best option in the sense that it reduces anticipated future costs compared with the alternatives—ie on average it’s less bad then the alternatives. I say ‘on average’ because there’s always uncertainty about how the future will play out. We get to choose a course of action but we have to accept that the consequences are uncertain—we control our actions but not ultimate outcomes.

In a world where power sharing is the least costly option for the United States, they’d presumably try to achieve that outcome, provided that they realise what’s in their best interest. After all, they’d have nothing to lose. If their offer to share power was rebuffed or proved too difficult or unpalatable, they could always change track and pursue another option.

But what happens if, as Hugh argues, the United States lacks the wisdom to realise what’s best for them? How should Australia respond then? Should we urge the US to share power with China and position ourselves to make this more likely by, for example, limiting our support to the US rebalance to Asia and adopting a more independent position between China and the United States? The answer depends on how likely we judge it to be that the United States will take our advice.

If the prospects of persuading the United States to share power are low, all we gain is a small increase in the probability of the least costly outcome (and a commensurately small decrease in the probability of more costly alternatives). But we’ll incur an opportunity cost; specifically, we won’t be able to shape the course of action the United States is actually undertaking and, more importantly, we’ll limit our options for mitigating the risks associated with it. Most critically, by failing to support the US strategy with respect to China, we’ll undermine the prospects of receiving US support subsequently.

My judgement is that by advocating US–China power sharing and positioning ourselves accordingly, we’re only likely to marginally increase the already small probability of that occurring. That’s because power sharing would require the United States to abandon the liberal democratic project it embraced following the end of WWII. As Hugh himself puts it: ‘sharing power with China runs counter to America’s vision of itself and its role in the world…’. I’d put it even more strongly; the United States and China have such incompatible conceptions of power as to make power sharing between them the equivalent of a vegetarian and a carnivore attempting to share a meal.

The critical point is that we can’t have it both ways. We can’t support the US pivot and not support the US pivot. We can’t host US troops in Darwin and not host US troops in Darwin. We can’t draw closer to other US allies in the region and distance ourselves from them at the same time. Most importantly, we can’t undermine US strategy and expect US protection. By all means, Australian leaders should have frank and full discussions with their US counterparts about how to best handle the challenges we face, but at some point—sooner rather then later—a decision has to be made. In this sense, there is a China choice for Australia to make.

It’s about playing the odds. Sound strategy demands a focus on the practical differences that we can make to the probabilities and consequences of the risks that we face, rather then a fixation on achieving the theoretical best possible outcome. It would make no sense for Australia to expend its limited alliance capital in a quixotic quest to reverse US policy. Like it or not, Australia only has a marginal capacity to shape the strategic landscape of the Asia–Pacific region in the 21st century. We have to accept the realities we face and work diligently to mitigate identified risks where we can.

Where does this leave us? My conclusion is that even if a power sharing arrangement is the best option for the United States to pursue in theory (a topic for another day), the best strategy for Australia will almost always be to work with the United States in executing the strategy it chooses for itself.

Mark Thomson is senior analyst for defence economics at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr Ronnie Meijer.