August 2012

Arts & Letters

Power Shift

By Malcolm Turnbull
Chinese and American sailors meet in 2011. Jon Rasmussen/US Department of Defense
Hugh White’s 'The China Choice'

Hugh White has helped shape strategic thinking in Canberra and Washington by confronting the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, and outlining the choices that need to be made, even if we don’t agree with his conclusions. The thesis of White’s timely and provocative book, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power (Black Inc.; $29.99), briefly stated, goes like this. China and the whole region, including Australia, have benefited from the peace and stability delivered over more than 40 years by the unchallenged pre-eminence of the United States Navy. According to the IMF, China, the world’s second-largest economy, will overtake the US within five years. Its wealth and dignity compel it to acquire a military capacity worthy of a great power, even though it only spends 2% of GDP on defence compared to the US’s 4.7%.

Forecasts of China’s rise and rise are hardly as dubious as those of Japan’s imminent global domination 30 years ago. Japan’s working population is one third that of the US; China’s is four times as large. So for China to equal US GDP it does not need to match American incomes or indeed productivity. If Chinese workers can be one quarter as productive as American workers, the two nations’ GDPs will be equal.

And who could seriously doubt that Chinese and American productivity will continue to converge? China’s economy has grown nearly twentyfold since 1980. When Mao met Nixon, China’s GDP was less than 5% of the global total – today it is 15%. While China has virtually no allies in the region (other than North Korea), it is the most important trading partner of almost all of its neighbours – including Australia. China is America’s only rival for global leadership and yet as the rivalry increases so does their interdependency. This will be the first time in the modern era that the world’s largest national economy has not also enjoyed very high average personal incomes.

White does not argue that a war between China and America is inevitable, but he fears it is likely unless the two develop a clearer understanding and a greater mutual acceptance and respect. China is not developing, nor is likely to develop, a capacity to project force anywhere in the world as the US has done. It is first and foremost an Asian power and above all a continental power.

But now that the Chinese people have well and truly stood up, it has acquired the capacity to deny the US Navy freedom to operate in the ocean between China and what they call the ‘first island chain’ consisting of Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia. Taiwan is within this chain, not marking its peri­meter. This capacity is partly a consequence of China’s economic growth but mostly of changes in military technology that have made the US Navy’s carrier groups more vulnerable to missile attack. But this does not mean China has gained the ability to control the seas offshore. Each side can deny access to the other, with the proviso that it is generally accepted today that if China sought forcibly to incorporate Taiwan within the People’s Republic, the US would not be able to prevent it other than by a full-scale, probably nuclear, war.

White points to an inherent risk in the American response to China’s “Area-Denial capabilities”, which aims to pre-emptively knock out China’s military capacity to deny US naval and air forces access to the seas within the first island chain. This “Air–Sea Battle Concept”, however, would involve US forces attacking and destroying Chinese military bases and assets on Chinese soil – actions that would very likely accelerate into an all-out war.

In the past, White argues, Chinese action against Taiwan or other maritime neighbours could be deterred by the latent power of the Seventh Fleet. But if that fleet cannot be deployed safely without pre-emptive action, the latency is lost. The conflict would be commenced, rather than deterred.

This is the context within which White argues that, as China seeks to play a role in the region commensurate with its regained status as a great power, the US faces three choices. First, it can pack up and pull out, which he considers neither desirable nor likely. Second, it can seek to confront and contain China, which he considers is likely to lead to conflict. Third, the US and China can come to a modus vivendi that ensures competition between them is peaceful.

For an example he looks to the Concert of Europe established in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon and proposes a formal understanding to share power between the region’s greatest powers – China, the US, Japan and India. The US would need to recognise China as a peer, and China would recognise the US as having a legitimate role in the Western Pacific. Beyond that, White’s concept for the content of such an agreement is pretty vague.

He suggests at one point that America should accept that Indochina is part of China’s sphere of influence. But what does that mean? Of course, the Americans did not intervene to assist Vietnam when the Chinese invaded in 1979. But it is difficult to see how the US could agree to be indifferent to China invading Vietnam today or installing a puppet government in Burma. While the US may not put boots on the Asian mainland to defend any of China’s land neighbours from invasion (the Korean Peninsula excepted), it is unlikely to desist from lending considerable assistance to the defenders.

In contrast to White, Henry Kissinger has argued that the change in China’s economic and military strength in the region will inevitably, but almost unconsciously, evolve into a new order, without either side having to make concessions to the other. I find Kissinger’s gradualist evolution to an implicit balance of power far more likely and achievable than White’s notion of nineteenth-century formalism. I am not persuaded by White that each side has to formally recognise the other as an equal – in fact, I would have thought the overwhelming focus of Washington on Beijing speaks louder than any agreement would that it regards China as at least very close, and closing, in power status. As Hillary Clinton said to Kevin Rudd, “How do you deal toughly with your banker?”

White’s argument is based on the premise that without a formal agreement the US and China are going to drift into a serious conflict. But how worried should we really be? In the modern era, China has shown no interest in territorial expansion beyond, at some future date, reuniting Taiwan with the mainland and, as long as this is done peaceably, the Americans can hardly object given their recognition that Taiwan is part of China.

China does lay claim to some islands and reefs in the South China Sea and these claims are contested by other littoral states, such as Vietnam and the Philippines. But tensions of this kind are far from unique. Nor should it be assumed that China’s claims are without any legal merit. China is hardly alone in claiming islands and rocks far from its shores. Where China is at fault is in its attempts to bully its neighbours rather than to agree to a peaceful process to resolve the differences.

In any event, the confrontations in the South China Sea have been entirely counterproductive from China’s point of view, with Vietnam consequently acquiring Russian submarines, frigates, land-based anti-ship missiles and jet fighters, as well as entering into a new defence agreement that has seen US naval ships visiting and being repaired at Cam Ranh Bay. At the same time, the Philippines has reaffirmed its security ties with Japan and acquired American naval vessels.

Further, in 2004, China agreed to settle its boundaries with Russia, notwithstanding that this meant ratifying the seizure by Russia’s tsars of large areas of Chinese Siberia in the nineteenth century. But perhaps most importantly, while there are plenty of sabre-rattlers in China (as there are everywhere else), the overriding focus of its government is maintaining strong economic growth and continuing to deliver rising living standards to the Chinese people. President Obama may have dismissed “prosperity without freedom” in his speech in Canberra last year, but that prosperity is the source of legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party.

Nobody would win from a conflict between China and the US. Even if it did not escalate into nuclear war, even if it were limited to conflicts at sea, the damage to China’s economy would be incalculable. Also, unsuccessful wars and prolonged recession may see the fall of American administrations, but their political system is not at risk of being overthrown. The same cannot be said of China – a costly war and an economic collapse could see the end of the Communist Party’s hegemony.

In addition, China’s one ally, North Korea, is more a strategic liability than an asset. By land and by sea, China is surrounded by many great powers in their own right, none of them viewing its rise with anything approaching equanimity. India is already a nuclear power and Japan, which has a large modern navy, could become one in very short order. China may be the biggest kid on the block, but it is a tough neighbourhood. 

There is no doubt that the rise of China has rattled many Americans. As Thomas Friedman describes in That Used To Be Us, Americans are developing an inferiority complex ­– why can China build fast trains, new subways and cities while American infrastructure is all too often falling to bits? Indeed, there is a risk that a combination of fear, envy and resentment will lead America into treating China as an enemy when, certainly compared to the Soviet Union, the case for doing so is very thin.

The more Americans are seen by the Chinese as seeking to contain China, the more its legitimate criticisms of China’s human rights record will be regarded as a self-interested effort to destabilise the Communist Party and hence the integrity of the Chinese state. Also, in the context of human rights, while American presidents can upbraid the Chinese for their lack of democracy, we should not imagine that if and when democracy comes to China it will result in an even more peaceful China. If there were open elections in China, it’s quite possible one or more parties would run on a patriotic platform of immediately returning Taiwan to the bosom of the motherland, or expelling the US Navy from the North and South China seas. Anyone who thinks democracies are not belligerent is a poor student of history, ancient and modern. White argues that Australia should encourage both China and America (with whom we have more influence) to share power and avoid conflict. I am not convinced by his Concert of Asia concept, but there is a lot of merit in Australia being seen to have a mind of its own, while remaining a staunch ally of America. Whether in Beijing or Washington, great powers see deference as their due.

White reminds us that Thucydides, considering the several incidents that led to the Peloponnesian War, concluded that the real reason was Sparta’s growing anxiety about the rise of Athenian wealth and power. He might also have quoted the words of the Athenian ambassadors to Melos who, irritated by the Melians’ desire to remain neutral, said: “You know in the real world, justice is only to be found as between equals in power. As for the rest, the strong do as they will and the weak suffer as they must.”

We should seek to ensure that the Americans, unlike the Spartans, do not allow their anxiety about a rising power to lead them into a reflexive antagonism that could end in conflict. And we should encourage the Chinese to focus on the economic ties that not only underpin their people’s prosperity, but also day by day ensure there is more to lose and less to gain from any conflict.

Malcolm Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull was the 29th prime minister of Australia.


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