Book review: The China Choice

Book review: The China Choice

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Reviewed by Stephen Jolly, Socialist Party

Hugh White is a professor of strategic studies at Canberra’s Australian National University. He is one of the most respected mainstream commentators on China in the country today. His 2010 article in Quarterly Essay had a major impact in generating debate about the growing strategic challenges in East Asia with a rising China and the still dominant USA.

In The China Choice, Hugh White takes his arguments to a higher level. Since the end of the Vietnam War until recently – a period of 40 years – “both the US-China relationship and the Asian strategic order have been built on China’s acceptance of America’s superior power…When Nixon met Mao in 1972, China’s economy was less than one-twentieth the size of America’s.”

He criticises the view that China cannot overtake the US as the biggest economy in the world. “Japan’s workforce is only about one-third the size of America’s. The average Japanese worker would therefore have to produce three times as much as the average American worker for Japan to overtake America’s output…China’s workforce is four times the size of America’s. That means China’s output will overtake America’s when the average Chinese worker produces just one-quarter as much as the average American worker.” he says. This is one possibility.

What White leaves out in his analysis however is that the growth generated since the shift from a Stalinist economic model to the peculiar and unique type of state capitalism that we see today was boosted by the previous existence of a planned economy. This is despite the fact that the ‘planned economy’ was terribly mismanaged by the bureaucratic dictatorship around Mao.

Under the Stalinist model a basic national infrastructure of roads, rail and industry was established. That has provided an important assistance to the recent growth. Compare this to India today where growth is stymied by an infrastructure mess.

White argues that notwithstanding the recent slowdown in Chinese growth the economy can keep “getting richer”. He admits there will be challenges undergoing “a fundamental shift from growth driven by investment and exports, to growth driven by domestic consumption”, however he believes “China has the capacity to maintain very strong growth because it still has several hundred million rural poor in two-dollar-a-day semi-subsistence jobs, who are available to take that first step into a factory and deliver that big dividend.”

He is on the optimistic wing of mainstream China commentators. He admits there are major environmental and economic challenges but believes “it is probable that the majority of Chinese people are not so desperate for liberalisation that they are willing to risk political turmoil and economic collapse…it’s government is repressive, but unlike many repressive governments it has delivered genuine benefits to its people.”

Indeed he believes that “an increasingly proud, confident and nationalistic public will be impatient for China to use its growing strength to assert itself more forcefully…China’s leaders will not be able to ignore these popular expectations any more than they can ignore demands for sustained economic growth.”

Not surprisingly “around 2009 – perhaps coinciding with the Global Financial Crisis – Beijing became much more assertive on a range of issues…(and) became increasingly willing to risk confrontation with Washington over issues.”

On the military side White explains that while the US is still dominant in East Asia and China is nowhere near achieving “sea control”, it is in position to maintain “sea denial” on the US Navy. Chinese anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles are already in enough numbers and quality to make East Asia uncontrollable for the US in a war.

White explains that since the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern European Stalinist states, the US was distracted by its involvement in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Only in the past couple of years has the US begun to recalibrate itself to the rise of China as its number one strategic challenge.

The stationing of 2,500 US Marines in Darwin and the muted creation of a massive military dock in Western Australia is about the US using Australia as a type of aircraft carrier for its military realignment. It is expected that 60% of the US Navy will be stationed in this part of the world soon.

Inherent in all of this is growing economic and diplomatic tensions between China and the US. A side issue is the dilemma this places the Australian ruling class in as it balances between its economic dependence on China and its historic role as almost a 51st American state in East Asia.

The China Choice is in essence a plea from Hugh White (representing a more sophisticated wing of Australian bourgeois opinion on these matters) to the US ruling class not to slip into a path of conflict and war with China.

He writes: “America has three options. It can resist China’s challenge and try to preserve the status quo in Asia. It can step back from its dominant role in Asia, leaving China to attempt to establish hegemony. Or it can remain in Asia on a new basis, allowing China a larger role but also maintaining a strong presence of its own. Most Americans assume that the first of these options is the only choice. Only a few take the second option seriously, although that could change. Most don’t even consider the third.”

White argues for a “Concert of Asia” modelled on the “Concert of Europe”. This was the 100-year-odd arrangement by major powers on that continent between the defeat of Napoleon and the start of World War One. “The essence of that understanding was simple: they agreed that no one would seek to dominate Europe, and that if any of their number tried, the others would unite to defeat it.”

The idea that the US would be willing to acquiesce to sharing power in East Asia to China is utopian. White admits “this will be very hard to do”. The Obama administration is moving in the exactly opposite direction and the Republicans are even more hardline.

What is more significant about this new book is the spectre of conflict, the logical path, that growing tensions between China and the US is leading to. White passionately argues for a peaceful capitalist co-existence. His utopianism however does not stop this being an important book with useful facts and insights for socialists.

The China Choice: Why America should share power
By Hugh White
Black Inc 2012