Reader response: Power sharing and risk management in Hugh White’s ‘China Choice’
11 Mar 2014|

Over the past few years I’ve developed arguments for three linked but separate propositions about relations between the US and China, and what Australia should do about them. First, America faces a serious challenge to its primacy in Asia from China. Second, America should respond to that challenge by trying to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with China, rather than by competing with China for primacy or withdrawing from Asia. Third, Australia should encourage America to share power rather than take one of the other two options.

Almost all the responses I’ve received here and in America focus on the first of these propositions, with relatively few engaging the second and even fewer addressing the third. I’m therefore especially grateful to Mark for his characteristically thoughtful and rigorous post on this issue. Of course his focus on the third issue doesn’t necessarily mean he agrees with the first two. I’m pretty sure he agrees that China’s challenge is serious, but he foreshadows his disagreement with my analysis of the best US response to it. I’m looking forward to hearing his reasons for that, but meanwhile he’s presented an important argument for the idea that even if sharing power was the best response for America to make, encouraging the US to share power isn’t the smartest thing for Australia to do.

If I’ve understood him right, Mark’s argument is essentially that:

  1. America is very unlikely to decide to share power with China even if that’s the best option for it;
  2. Australian advocacy would make very little difference to whether it decides to share power or not;
  3. our advocacy of power-sharing would weaken our alliance with the US if it didn’t choose that option; and
  4. that a weaker alliance with the US under either of the non-power-sharing options would make us less secure.
  5. If the first four propositions are true, then Australia’s interests would be better served by maximising our benefits under the most likely outcome, rather than by advocating the highly unlikely best outcome.

I’ve no argument with the risk-management calculation embodied in the fifth point. But the strength of Mark’s conclusion depends on the extent to which the four propositions that precede it are true. I think each of them is significantly less true than Mark does, which is why my risk-management calculation comes out differently. Of course these are matters for judgement, and hence benefit from debate, which is why I’m so glad Mark has raised them. Let me explain why my judgement different from Mark’s in each case.

1) Mark’s reason for thinking that the US is very unlikely to opt for power-sharing with China is essentially that America hasn’t done anything like it before, and that it’d be contrary to long-standing and deeply-held US ideas about itself and its place in the world. These are legitimate points, but not decisive. The fact that something hasn’t happened before isn’t a strong argument that it won’t happen in future, especially when critical circumstances have changed. Which they have: today in Asia, America faces a China which is richer and therefore ultimately stronger than any adversary it has ever faced before. It’d be unwise for America to assume that China is less committed to changing the status quo than America is to preserving it, so the costs and risks of contesting leadership with China could be exceptionally high. At some point Americans will have to ask whether those costs and risks are worth whatever benefits they believe primacy in Asia will deliver them. They haven’t done so yet because, most Americans don’t yet accept that China is really challenging America in Asia. When they do the answer could well be that it’s not worth it. Moreover, they have more than two options. I think Mark’s argument presupposes that if the US doesn’t share power in Asia it’ll stay and contest Chinese hegemony. I think it’s at least as likely that it would withdraw from Asia instead.

2) I’m less sure than Mark that Australia can’t influence America’s decisions on all this. We haven’t attempted such a thing for a long time, so it’s outside our recent diplomatic experience. But look back at Casey’s efforts in Washington in 1940-41, or Bruce’s efforts in London through the late 1930s, and we can see how it’s done. Once the debate starts in America the opposing views could be quite finely balanced. We do have lots of assets and credentials in the US that could help tip the scales. And we don’t have to act alone, because China’s other neighbours in Asia all have the same interests as us, and most of them are already well ahead of us in thinking about this. We should encourage them to add their weight to the US debate too.

3) I’m less sure than Mark that our advocacy of power sharing would weaken the alliance if the US didn’t choose that option. I take an unsentimental view of alliances. The strength of future US strategic commitments to Australia will depend on the value of Australia to it at the time. If America chooses to compete with China for primacy in Asia, and Australia is a valuable strategic asset in that competition, it’ll maintain that commitment whatever we’ve argued in the past. If not, it won’t.

4) Of course if America chooses to withdraw from Asia rather than share power, the alliance is finished anyway. This is one reason I’m not as sure as Mark that a weaker alliance with the US would make us less secure if the US didn’t opt for power-sharing. Another is that if America stays to compete with China, are we necessarily less secure if we’re less closely allied with the US? That depends on several things. One is what China’s doing. The more aggressively China behaves, the more our security would be enhanced by a close US alliance. But the more escalating rivalry is driven by a US refusal to accommodate ‘reasonable’ Chinese ambitions (what counts as reasonable is a complex argument not pursued here), the less clear it’d be that we’d be more secure with a closer alliance. Another factor is who would win. The better the chances that the US prevails over China, the more a close alliance would enhance our security. But the converse is equally true. Being a close ally of a loser is painful. We’d need to consider, for example, how we’d look as a close US ally if America took up China’s challenge and competed with it for primacy, only to discover after a few years that it was costing more than it was worth, and opted for withdrawal instead.

All of this suggests a strategic future very different from the one we’ve grown up in. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. As Keynes said, the hardest thing for people to grasp is that the future might look different from the past.

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at ANU and author of The China ChoiceImage courtesy of Flickr user Sky Noir.