Author: Paul Keating, former Prime Minister of Australia
In talking about the choice to be made between the US and China on the strategic balance in the Pacific, Hugh White makes clear that his new book, The China Choice, is about America’s part in that shared responsibility.
But underlying this point is the profound question: can the established international order assimilate and adjust to the rise of a new and major power? Or will we be condemned to war as in other periods of history?
White also asks why the US never saw it coming; how did it not see the challenge to its primacy in the Pacific developing? The fact is the globalisation of countries ran ahead of the globalisation of strategy. The failure of the US to understand the dispersal of global power at the end of the Cold War, of the post-colonial blossoming, of the availability of capital and technology, saw it miss the chance to create a new and more representative world order. One in which it would have earned a permanent and exalted place by virtue of its foresight and magnanimity.
That moment has now passed, and from here on it is simply hard slog.
The industrial revolution broke the nexus between population and GDP. Once the productivity-inducing inputs of capital and technology became ubiquitous, it was only a matter of time before the great states by way of population once again became the great states by way of GDP. White has long been making the same point, and it is the principal reason behind China’s restoration to the position of economic primacy it enjoyed before 1800.
White tells us that China’s instincts are ‘ultimately about matters of status and identity’, and that for two centuries it has been deprived of these. He says that China will not relinquish its claim to status as a great power, even if this leads to conflict. And he goes on to argue that should ‘America try to preserve the status quo and avoid fundamental change in the relationship, it will be choosing to accept China as a strategic rival’. He says they are building their forces and adapting their military plans, specifically with that in mind.
From there White comes to the conclusion that ‘only together can they make the mutual concessions needed to pull back towards cooperation’. And this gets to the nub of his book: the choice America makes in the face of a restored China from the standpoint of America’s long-held position of strategic primacy in the Pacific.
He sees this boiling down to three options: for America to stay as now and preserve the status quo, to calculate the odds and withdraw, or to shift policy and share power in the region with China and other states. White argues the third option is ‘the one that best serves American interests’. Indeed, he says ‘the central idea of this book is that such an understanding is possible today between the United States and China’.
Importantly, White argues that in an order based on shared power, ‘the United States remains a central player in Asian affairs’. ‘Its power balances and constrains China’s, protects American interests and enforces vital norms of international conduct’.
The hard bit of that equation, he contends, is that ‘America will have to exercise its authority within limits acceptable to China, just as it requires China to exercise its power within limits acceptable to the United States’. And he concedes that the really hard part in building an order of this kind is in the negotiation of ‘those mutually acceptable limits’.
Reflecting his faith in foreign policy realism, White says new orders of this kind are only built by negotiations between the great powers. And he argues that the first requirement of any negotiation is ‘to accept and acknowledge that your counterparty’s objectives are, in the broader sense, legitimate’. In his book, White takes the cooperation and competition idea and places it within a ‘concert of power’ model, sketching out what this might look like in Asia.
He says, correctly in my view, that the ‘concert’ was not founded on any abstract commitment to principles of peaceful coexistence or the brotherhood of man. The only relevant principle was everyone understood ‘that the costs of seeking hegemony outweighed the benefits’.
White then puts the question: would building a ‘concert’ mean conceding a sphere of influence to China in Asia? He answers his question by saying that ‘spheres of influence remain an important feature of the international order’, going on to add ‘it would only be realistic to acknowledge that where the vital interests of other great powers were not directly affected, China might be conceded a sphere of influence’.
For my own part, I have long held the view that the future of Asian stability cannot be cast by a non-Asian power — especially by the application of US military force. The failure of US wars in Korea, Vietnam and outside of Asia, in Iraq and Afghanistan, should lead the US to believe that war on the Asian mainland is unwinnable and that, therefore, the key to Asian stability lies in the promotion of strategic cooperation.
White also warns that ‘there is no mid-point between conceding nothing and conceding everything’. A line has to be drawn, which, he says, is the challenge for American statesmanship: to identify at what point the US will stop making concessions and to let China know what will happen if China crosses the line.
Implicit in this, is the United States deciding which characteristics of China are inimical to US interests and pose a threat and which are simply a product of China’s scale, economic rise and culture which can be otherwise accommodated.
We need a structure which encourages China to participate in the region rather than seek to dominate it — and achieving this structure will be important for Australia. White says ‘if either country (the US or China) decides that we have to choose between them, then we do’. But that’s the point: from Australia’s position, a choice is what it does not need — and in a cooperative structure, there would be less need to make one.
This is why there is every reason to try and face America up to its changed economic and strategic circumstances. White says ‘for more than a generation we have got out of the habit of engaging in real, serious debate with Washington’. Indeed, the debate around China has carried with it the assumption that Australia has no choice but to support American primacy in Asia. This assumption, White says, now needs to be challenged. And I agree with him.
All of us in the debate in Australia believe Asia will be a safer and better place with the continued engagement of the US in the region. And with Australia’s trade preponderantly in North Asia and the greater part of that with China, there is every reason to support the development of a cooperative structure between the US and China in the Pacific. And this must mean recognising China’s legitimacy, its prerogatives as a great power and the legitimacy of its government.
If we are pressed into the notion that only democratic governments are legitimate, our future is limited to action within some confederation of democracies. While we might hope that peace may prevail among democratic states, we should take heed of views of people like Kenneth Waltz, who argue that the structure of international policy is not transformed by changes internal to states.
Arguments of this kind have not slowed critics of China, who are quick to invoke human rights and values as though the human condition had not improved dramatically across the Chinese landscape. The seemingly perpetual invocation of this human rights mantra attributes no moral value to the scale and quality of the Chinese achievement. And on the question of values, as White eloquently remarks, ‘peace is a value too’, arguing that that value weighs a moral obligation to minimise the risk of war if at all possible.
Paul Keating is a former prime minister of Australia. This article is a digest of a much longer speech delivered at the launch of Professor Hugh White’s book, The China Choice, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2012.