Hugh White is right even when wrong

china 800x450Foreign policy commentary in Australia can be a fratricidal business.

In the latest salvo, Greg Sheridan, foreign editor for The Australian, excoriated the Australian National University’s Professor Hugh White on Thursday. He accused White of wanting:

A grand US-China settlement that cedes vast areas of Asia—such as the whole of Indochina—to Beijing as a sphere of influence, regardless apparently of what Indochina wants. He wants us to abandon any concern with human rights and a million other completely dotty thought bubbles.

Beyond unfairly simplifying White’s ‘China choice’ theory (see Malcolm Turnbull’s 2012 piece in The Monthly for a respectful and balanced assessment), Sheridan’s article overlooks the acute prescience of White’s analysis.

For years, White has been one of the few foreign policy commenters—not just in Australia but around the world—to carefully think through the earth-shaking implications of China’s challenge to the US-led liberal world order.

For the record, I happen to think that White misdiagnoses the nature of the Chinese challenge and advocates dangerous policy responses.

White claims that Chinese foreign policy planners are fixated on usurping US leadership in the Asia-Pacific and are using territorial disputes in the East and South China seas as a means of testing Washington’s commitment to US strategic primacy.

As I have argued elsewhere, China is actually willing to peacefully wait for the gradual decline of US leadership as its own economic and military power surges. By contrast, Beijing’s stated intentions and behaviour to date suggest that it is deadly serious about regaining what it considers to be lost Chinese territory on its maritime and continental peripheries.

Moreover, the US strategic retrenchment in the Asia-Pacific recommended by White risks making fears of Chinese coercion a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By responding to resurgent Chinese power with a scaling back of its regional security role, the United States would tacitly encourage China to adopt an imperious attitude towards its Asian neighbours and use even more aggressive tactics to seize disputed territory.

Nevertheless, the core thrust of White’s voluminous foreign policy analysis is radical and right—the polar opposite of what Sheridan dismissively labels ‘banality and absurdity.’

Underlying many of White’s policy prescriptions is the recognition that Chinese grand strategy poses such a serious challenge to the Asia-Pacific’s current international system that the region’s geostrategic status quo is unsustainable in the medium to long-term.

This projection is fast becoming a reality.

In the last two years alone, China has launched a controversial Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over disputed islands in the East China Sea, stepped up its construction of artificial islets in hotly contested waters in the South China Sea, and maintained its crowded schedule of border incursions into Indian-administered territory on the Tibetan Plateau.

Having long sidelined its territorial ambitions to pursue deeper economic and diplomatic ties with its neighbours, China now looks set to demand a radical rewrite of Asia’s territorial status quo in the East and South China seas and on the Indian subcontinent.

China’s rise is also overturning the global balance of military power.

Superior US defence technology and extensive experience fighting messy Middle Eastern wars might give the United States a substantial military edge over China for decades to come.

But with China quickly translating its rapidly expanding GDP into an ever-more colossal defence budget, the Middle Kingdom is destined to end up on top of the global military hierarchy.

As I argued here last month, plausible projections of Chinese military spending as a percentage of GDP could see the Chinese defence budget balloon to a staggering US$2.1 trillion by 2050, which would make it the world’s largest by a wide margin and roughly the equivalent of 124 per cent of US military spending.

China’s rise is similarly challenging the globe’s US-led international architecture.

The near-total failure of US attempts to keep its allies and partners out of the US$100 billion Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) was not just a stunning embarrassment for US diplomacy; it was also a manifestation of the transition to a multipolar world order.

The United States will always be a key pillar of the institutions of international governance and will remain an essential economic partner and security guarantor for numerous friends and allies in the Asia-Pacific and around the globe.

Yet as the AIIB debacle demonstrates, the era of unambiguous US leadership is over. The United States will need to concede greater influence over the institutions of international governance to a rapidly resurgent China, as well as other (re)emerging great powers like India, Russia and Brazil.

White’s account of Chinese grand strategy might be incorrect in crucial respects, while his policy prescriptions might be dangerous.

Yet even when White is wrong, he is right: As he has forcefully argued for years, China’s rise will make a partial dismantling of the US-led liberal world order irresistible.

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.