Thursday, 9 January 2014

Making a Choice

Book Review

Hugh White, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power
ISBN: 9781863956093

Recently, the growing rivalry between China and Japan has dominated discussions on Asia-Pacific affairs.  There was China’s announcement on ADIZ, which was then countered by Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.  With both sides claiming that they are presently experiencing one of the lowest points of their bilateral relations, we in Southeast Asia can only hope that there would be some breakthroughs to bring back confidence and stability to the regional outlook.

Hardcover version
But somehow the growing tensions between China and Japan seem only a reflection of the bigger rivalry existing in the Asia-Pacific (or in the world as a whole): the China-US rivalry.  Yes, Japan is vying for greater influence in international affairs.  And yes, Japan is one of the strongest economies in the world.  But Japan is a US ally, whose security is dependent on this North American hegemon.  And so, when we talk about the China-Japan rivalry within the context of regional peace and security, then it is rather obvious that the US’ hands are deep in this melee.

Many academic and journalistic works have been written, discussed, and undergone criticisms on the US-China rivalry.  Naturally, some are more enlightened than others.  But all of them have been meaningful additions to the pool of knowledge on the study of contemporary Asia-Pacific regional studies.  As a life-long student, I can only appreciate these academic and journalistic works, one of which can be found in The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power.

Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, argues that there are more than two choices for the US in its dealing with the Chinese.  Of course, the first two choices are commonly known: to confront the Chinese (as a means to preserve American dominance over the region) OR to allow China’s rise to dominance in the region (while hoping that China will not have any tendency to cause conflict, particularly with the US). 

In this fantastic book, White elaborates on a third choice for the US, and that is to share power with China.  He argues that both China and the US have every capacity to deny leadership to the other.  However, for one of them to single-handedly, truly dominate the Asia-Pacific, that would almost be impossible. As a result, the idea of the US maintaining uncontested leadership in the region is as illusory as the fear that China will one day be at the top of the Asia-Pacific, alone and unchallenged.

There is Cold War-like belief among many Americans that countries in the Asia-Pacific could somehow be wooed into siding with them.  “An aggressive and hegemonic China would not be good for the region”, they would say, “Thus, justifying any effort to limit China’s power.”  However, the truth is that many countries in the region view the world from a more complex set of lenses, and not just the black-and-white perspective offered by the Americans. White explains that unlike the situation with the Soviets, many Asia-Pacific countries “have much to gain from China economically, and little to fear politically”.

Kindle version
Indeed, many Americans may think that preventing China from disrupting the regional order is beneficial not only in securing their own interests, but also those of the entire region (how noble..!).  However, as White argues, the Chinese see “a parallel, but opposite symmetry”.  They believe that China is seeking to remedy the long injustices that have been dealt to them, especially by foreign powers, both western and Asian.  Therefore, any power that intends to preserve the status quo regional order is in fact perpetuating these injustices.  Not only for the Chinese, but also for the other Asia-Pacific countries that have not entirely benefitted from the US’s regional dominance.

What White proposes is a new concert of Asia, which is loosely modeled on the Concert of Europe that existed between 1815 and 1914.  Admittedly, the Concert of Europe was not perfect.  There was still conflict during those times, including the war for German unification.  Worse of all, the regional order then ended in a devastating bang: the First World War.  However, as a whole, conflicts among Great Powers were avoided because each Great Power recognized that they must not seek dominance over the entire region.  And most importantly, during that period, Europe experienced a massive growth in the economic, social, and political fields.

The Asian version of this concert would have four “Great Powers” as the prime movers of the region: the US, China, Japan, and India.  Then there would be “middle powers” such as South Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia (surprisingly, White didn’t mention anything about Australia) completing the hierarchy of power.  White goes on to argue that Indonesia, if it continues to grow the way it has, has every potential to end up as an additional “true” Great Power some time down the line. 

The rules of this concert sound simple:

First, each power must accept the legitimacy of the other power’s political system.  In other words, for the Americans, no more trying to cause (or make appear as though there are) domestic instabilities in China. 
Second, by agreeing to disagree, each power must be willing to make concessions in order to achieve resolutions through peaceful negotiations.
Third, each power must allow the others to build up their armaments, and allow the use of them if there are forces challenging their status as a “great power”.
And fourth, the powers must be able to develop a “code of conduct” that would “govern” their interactions with one another.

Of course, this perspective is far from perfect.  In fact, it has many holes.  For one, as an Indonesian, I would yell out: “Where’s Indonesia in all of this?”  Indonesia may not have the many of capacities owned by the Chinese or the Americans.  But we are the largest country and economy in Southeast Asia, and a leader in ASEAN.  In fact, I’ll yell out again: “What will happen to ASEAN and its regional architecture then?”

In this regard, White may have not sold me entirely on his idea.  But one thing that I do appreciate is his willingness to go outside of the box and propose an alternative to the rut that we are presently in.  I feel that there must be more than two choices to deal with China.  Choices other than confronting China head-on OR appeasing China’s rise to regional dominance.  There must be.  And while the argument proposed in this book may not be entirely convincing, it does present us with some food for thought, and importantly, stimuli for future thinking on the topic of China-US rivalry.

Personally, I believe that Indonesia is a middle power, for now, and maybe even in the long run.  However, that should not relegate its participation in the region (or even the “Concert of Asia”) to insignificance.  Maybe there should be analyses of what a middle power status could truly mean in a “Concert of Asia”.  On what counts as a middle power.  Maybe then I would be more willing to explore further this proposal. 

Time may not be on our side, as White says.  If China’s power keep on growing the way it is doing now, then its economy would be bigger than the US’ and its military more capable of keeping up with the Americans’.  Therefore, it is in the US’ interests to negotiate a new relationship with China, before the power balance further shift in China’s way.  In this regard, the urgency of this process is also in the interest of other countries in the region, including Indonesia.

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