Monday, August 13, 2012

Negotiating China's Rise - like it or not

Why America should Share Power,
by Hugh White, Black Inc,190pp. 

Reviewed: 11 August 2012

It's one thing to understand the strategic challenge, another thing to put forward a sensible win-win solution, but much harder to set out a way to get there from here.  Hugh White scores well on the first two, but doesn't really address the third.  Diplomats and strategists might call the missing link "the modalities".

The choices White identifies are to be made in Washington.  Australia, we infer, will be swept along whatever course the USA adopts.

The key word in White's analysis is “primacy”, which I take to mean unchallengeable military superiority. He warns that America and its allies tend to overestimate America's ability to translate military superiority into political outcomes.   White doubts that America, even now, has the real power to prevent a determined Chinese takeover of Taiwan.  China's ability to sink American aircraft carriers with land-based missiles could not be neutralized without escalating attacks upon Chinese mainland facilities.  Mutual retaliation could reach nuclear level. Few if any American allies would support such a venture.

On the other hand, China's ability to assert power beyond its borders is also limited by the major Asian regional powers that have historical reasons to be suspicious of Chinese power - Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India, Indonesia and others.

In my view White under-states the depth of anxiety among China's neighbours over growing Chinese power. For neighbouring nations, many of which already host significant Chinese racial minorities, have historical reasons to fear economic colonization, and increasing long-term immigration from China.  For such nations, a remote, over-fed hegemon (such as America) is preferable to a nearby, hungry hegemon, because they are less likely to move permanently into your house.

The rivalry between US and China is focussed in the Western Pacific, where China would like to establish primacy and America wants to keep it. White proposes that America and China must learn, somehow, to share power and leadership, at least within that region.

Any proposals for strategic dialogue with China must be read in the context of Sun Tzu's Art of War, whose precepts on tactics, negotiation, strategy and psychology still shape Chinese strategy. They are supremely pragmatic, whereas White argues for adoption of common principles for common benefit.

A basic rule of negotiation is that you do not give away your final position at the beginning. White goes so far as to offer, as his final chapter, a proposed text for an Address to the Nation by an American President, setting out the reasons why the United States has decided to share power with China in the Western Pacific.  It looks to me like an invitation for China to raise its demands and keep right on pushing.  What does China gain by conceding anything in that context?

Read the full review

Richard Thwaites is a former ABC correspondent in China and later participated in Asia-Pacific and multilateral negotiations for the Australian government.