The problem with the “power-sharing” expectation in China-US relations

The respected Australian security studies analyst Hugh White has argued for some time that the US should “accommodate” a rising China in a power-sharing agreement in the Western Pacific. The view is broadly shared by former prime ministers Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd.

White argues that China and the US are strategic rivals and while China is plainly rising, it should not be denied its zone of influence in Asian security affairs. The US should instead acknowledge the inevitable rise of China will cede responsibility and power to it to ensure security in the region. The US should not try to hold on to its grip of security in the region which has been in place since the end of WWII.

White’s view sounds good on paper. But the reality is not nearly so clear-cut. His view seems to assume some kind of civilized handover of power between the US and a China that mirrors the sort of diplomatic protocol common in the US, Australia and other Western nations. One only has to look to China’s strategy of raising the pressure on neighbors in the East China Sea to understand that White’s view represents a kind of well-meaning fantasy.

But it’s one of many fantasies that have underpinned China’s rise. The Western fantasy always was that China would open to Western companies, to Western ideas, to Western-designed international bodies of governance, and finally, to Western influence as it marched toward modernism.

No doubt China is modernising. But often its strides come at the expense of Western countries as well as the notion of fair play. And what’s becoming of that rules-based order that has dominated world affairs since the end of WWII? Well, it’s eroding. As Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas chief Jared Cohen writes, China is a signatory to international agreements on copyright laws.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in 2011, then Chinese president Hu Jintao privately told a small group of business leaders that China would ‘fully implement all of the intellectual property laws as required by the WTO and modern Western practices.’ We attended this meeting, and as we filed out of the room after President Hu’s comments, the American business contingent clearly expressed scepticism toward his claim….

The treaties of which China is a signatory are either unenforced or ignored by China. Increasingly, China and Western businesses make a cynical trade-off. Basically, companies can hand over their technology for access to China’s markets. The Germans do it. The US does. All modern economies hand over technology in exchange for access to China. It’s all done in the hope that the value of access to China will lead to justifiable profits from China. Basically, a blue skies projection.

But the reality is a lot less beneficial to Western business, economies and standards of living.

Likewise, in the realm of security, Hugh White and others believe that China can be “accommodated” and it will prevent an inevitable clash. But that belief assumes that inside China there is a rational decision-making apparatus that wants to avoid risk. The reality on the ground is that it’s never clear who is making decisions in China, and obviously, avoiding risk is pretty low on their priority.

Basically, it reminds me of a phrase I have heard from a US policymaker, which is that the US must deal with the China that is, not the one it hopes for. Security analysts may be well-served to do the same.

Australia to go its own way regarding China and the US?

That’s at least what one Australian is urging. He suggests Australia should pursue a path of strategic ambiguity between the US and China, to avoid being drawn up in a quasi-inevitable confrontation between the two. Hugh White points to comments from the government’s secretary of the department of foreign affairs Peter Varghese who has said that Australia “doesn’t want to be put in a position where it has to choose between the US and China.”
But isn’t that the feeling around most Asia (outside of Japan) as China grows more powerful and flexes its economic, military and diplomatic muscle? The view towards the US is summed up as: “Don’t leave our region. But don’t make us choose.”
White also cites Kevin Rudd’s series of speeches on Pax Pacifica, which have been covered by this blog.
The other interesting language he quotes of Varghese is that Australia recognises China’s growing strategic influence with the caveat: “The extent to which this can be peacefully accommodated will turn ultimately on both the pattern of China’s international behaviour and the extent to which the existing international order intelligently finds more space for China.”
White must have composed this piece on a type-writer, imagined from an earlier time.The region, for White, consists of landmasses and military assets and trade. It’s as if the internet never came in to being. I guess White hasn’t noticed this whole PLA hacking thing, and given too much thought to what the global digital landscape will look like for Australia, in relation to the rest of the world.
So let’s flash forward to a strategically ambivalent Australia, that becomes a diplomatic middle ground between the US and China. An economy like Australia’s, if it can succeed in diversifying from its dependence on commodities exports, will eventually have to rely on knowledge and service-based exports. US companies will want to do business in Australia, but the corporate security environment is considered too porous for the security of US technology. As many an Australian knows, China’s businesses favour the Chinese. So while it looks like a big market for Australian businesses, the jury remains out on whether Australia will profit from entering it. (Which is not the same as selling commodities.)
Acknowledging the new strategic power of China, and its matching cultural expectations, will Australia do what is expected and help facilitate the technology transfers back to China? After all, part of a Chinese century demands an embrace of the Chinese way and that means a different order, not based on Western law or contract as much as insider-status (think of those princelings) and reciprocity. The big question is how will Australia juggle these vastly different and competing cultural expectations, while keeping both sides happy and not alienating either the US or China? I don’t know. But neither does White.

If not war, then….

An alternate vision of the China-Japan “war”


An interest take by Lowy Institute’s Rory Medcalf’s on Hugh White’s Big Call. While Medcalf downplays the prospect of imminent war he notes….

it would be folly to count on a prolonged crisis simply fizzling out. But both China and Japan are more than capable of strategic patience. Neither wants to force the issue in the immediate term. Each government has an interest in trying to exert greater control over the various institutional players — not just navies but also civilian maritime agencies — whose operational decisions could make the difference between calm and crisis.

It points to the beginning of a struggle for influence in the seas between China and Japan, backed by the US. But should the dispute linger and harden into a kind of DMZ-type situation, how difficult is it to imagine the struggle for influence transfering to other areas of competition? Already there is a race between China and Japan and South Korea to secure the resources needed for the economies. What if the polarizing effect of the island dispute seeps into other areas of deal-making? Already manufacturers routinely add other countries besides China to their supply chain to try to miminize disruptions related to a total reliance n China?

What if that kind of polarization begins to shape the regional economy? If it takes hold in Asia, which is the strongest region in the globe, it could have follow-on effects elsewhere. Already China’s Internet is not exactly the same thing as the Grown Up Internet, which the US and Japan share. If the Internet becomes Balkanized, why wouldn’t that extend to technology and technological standards, too? In this way, if the Internet is like a universal language, we are seeing the emergence of regional dialects (China’s internet, Iran’s , Thailand’s internet), and not because it makes sense economically, but becuase it makes sense for nationalistic reasons. This is the stuff of science fiction, to be sure. But it wouldn’t be the far off either. Some anthropologists theorize that the development of language is as much to facilitate communication within a given community as well as blocking it out with others. Transfer this notion to the world technology, economic, etc… Basically, anything to avoid a war while doing anything to avoid cooperation between the world’s second and third largest economies. This could be a new kind of sectional Cold War.

A thing about that China-Japan war call





Although Australian National University professor of strategic studies Hugh White has gotten a stir (online at least) with his prediction of a possible war in 2013 between China and Japan, it is important to remember White could be wrong about a lot.


In August his colleague and fellow professor of strategic studies Paul Dibb said as much.

But that was before the Japanese government “bought” the Senkaku Islands, giving the Chinese the excuse to throw an extended fit that has not ended after months.


However, the spectrum of analysis on the subject highlights the fact that Hugh White’s ideas are “sexy” by media standards. They provide a hard edge. A snappy headline. A well-formed talking point that travels well from editor, to reader, to blogger. And so there is plenty of appetite for White’s views in the editorial pages of newspapers and talk shows and think tanks around the world.

Less dire, more complex readings of the China-Japan situation may actually be more accurate, even if they are less favored by the media.


The risk of course, is that the pat little picture of imminent war painted by White becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


The other risk is that White, who has plenty of dissenters in the ranks of strategic analysts and researchers, is unpopular because he is so right. I ask myself the same question, when I get irked by what White writes.


Do White’s analyses bother me because they are overly simplistic and zero-sum game, black and white?


Or do White’s forecasts bother me because (to paraphrase the Goldwater motto): In my heart, I know he’s right?