Before I left for a meeting in Beijing, the leading China hand at George Washington University, David Shambaugh, advised me to read Huge White’s The China Choice. Shortly after I landed in China, the renowned Harvard scholar Weiming Tu (who now makes his home at the Peking University) asked me if I had read the Australian professor’s book.
The recommendation was well-taken and gladly heeded. White holds that the United States has not made up its mind as to whether it will seek to engage or contain China, but in the meantime there are forces in both societies that push the United States and China down a slippery slope—a dynamic that may end very badly for both sides.
White scoffs at the idea that the United States can defeat China militarily. He asks rhetorically, after our experience with Afghanistan and Iraq—does the U.S. mean to occupy China’s mainland? And if not, he wonders, how can this continental power be defeated? He warns that China has developed area-denial weapons, especially anti-ship missiles that are cheap and effective against the big, high-cost U.S. platforms, especially aircraft carriers. And that to neutralize these missiles the United States would have to attack China’s mainland, which is likely to escalate to a nuclear war.
At the same time, White does not buy the argument that China is so preoccupied with its numerous domestic problems, which include environmental, demographic, social and governmental challenges (especially corruption), that it has little energy left for foreign pursuits. China has long been humiliated and is keen to restore its place among the powerful nations of the world.
Hence, White argues, the United States should accommodate China. Here he takes two positions that are far from fully compatible. Sometimes he argues that Washington should treat China as an equal and co-lead with it; at other points he argues that United States should allow China to extend its sphere of influence as a regional power, not even as an Asian power but merely as an East Asian one. He suggests that the United States allow China its own Monroe doctrine: let China to treat its part of the world the way United States has treated Latin America. In the process, however, he ignores his own point that India and Japan are very unlikely to accept such a role for China. In my words, they are not Argentina and Chile.
Like many other authors, White’s analysis is much keener than his prescriptions. His main recommendation is that the United States should join with China, India, and Japan to form a “concert of powers” comparable to the power-sharing arrangement that emerged in post-Napoleonic Europe. This would create “a new order in which China’s authority and influence grow enough to satisfy the Chinese, and America’s role remains large enough to ensure that China’s power is not misused.” But White is rather unclear on what this would entail. Allow China exclusive rights on the South China Sea? Give up on the U.S.-Japan military treaty? And would China agree to join a body that has two U.S. allies as the main players, nations it does not considers its equals?
White raises all the right questions, and eloquently so. But he leaves it to others to spell out ways to accommodate China—if this is a course the United States can be persuaded to follow.
Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.