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Saturday, 22 September 2012

Book review: The China Choice, Hugh White (2012)

It was timely for the New York Times to publish a story on President Obama's stance with respect to China just as I was reading this book. It's a long, feature story, chatty and well sourced, and it talks about how, since 2012, Obama has toughened up on China. In Australia, we can see where this has taken things. In 2011, Obama visited Australia to open a new Marines base in the Northern Territory. Today we see another Asian partner, New Zealand, at the receiving end of the US's glad hand, as Leon Panetta, the defense secretary, announced that New Zealand ships would once again be allowed to dock at US military yards. But news about the strategy of Pacific littoral democracies regarding China are really not hard to find here in the media. Which is why this book is so interesting.

Hugh White works at the Australian National University in Canberra but he has also worked in government, notably with the Office of National Assessments, an intelligence-gathering organisation. The book demonstrates that he's well-read: there are passages dealing with Britain's appeasement of Hitler and with the Concert of Europe established in 1815 to regulate relations between countries on that continent. His new book is subtitled 'Why America Should Share Power' and it deftly, and in detail, maps out the realities of the new Asian order, which derive their compelling character from the fact that China is soon to become the world's largest economy.

White astutely points out that patriotism rather than ideology is the value that drives China's foreign relations, especially those that touch on its sense of self. In this respect the power struggle between China and the US - which White says has been going on for some years - is markedly different from the one which played out between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There are other differences, too. Whereas the Soviet Union signally failed to improve the quality of life of its people, China has managed to shift from a classic Marxist economy to one that enables individuals there to achieve a measure of wealth that makes them far less likely to criticise the government. White says that this characteristic of Communist China means that America must recognise the Chinese government as legitimate, and this is something he says Obama is just the latest president to refuse to do. White also says that America cannot contain China any more, and he gives much space to describing why this is the case. Therefore, he says, a new order for Asia is required.

The power-sharing relationship that White envisages between America and the other major Asian powers - India and Japan - will take time to develop even if it were embraced by all of their administrations today, but he thinks that there needs to be an agreement to establish a new Concert of Asia. Curiously, White omits Australia from his calculations and analysis. He also thinks that Russia is more interested in regaining influence on its European margins than it is in becoming a major player in Asia. I'm not sure I agree with these points, because clearly Australia must be part of any decision-making process that would lead to a new Asian power balance, and I believe that Russia would require inclusion in such a process as well. But this is the thing with White's book: there are so many angles to cover and he espouses his arguments with such clarity, that the reader's engagement is assured. That is, if the reader has an interest in Asian geopolitics. All Australians should be so inclined. I wrote about my vision for Australia in a blog post earlier this month, because the Australian people generally are more informed about what's going on in Asia, than are Americans.

Obama is not the only world leader to address a joint sitting of Australia's Parliament. Hu Jintao, China's president, did so too in 2003. Australia also reserves a significant quantity of its media attention for China due to the importance of our trade with that country. And the proportion of ethnic Chinese in Australia is certainly larger than it is in the US, although the number in total may not be as large. Likewise for the large cohort of Chinese students who study here each year. But it's not just China that occupies so much of our attention. Indonesia is frequently in the news, and India shares a national obsession - cricket - with Australia. We are at the centre in Asia, and so when a man from Down Under with such strong qualifications as Hugh White calls for a change in the way US-China relations are structured, America should pay attention.

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