The China choice: why America should share power by Hugh White
The Chinese will continue to avoid unnecessary friction and minimise the risk of confrontation. But they will not relinquish their country’s claim to status as a great power – even if that leads to conflict. The implications of this for America are simple and very significant. If America tries to preserve the status quo and avoid fundamental change in the relationship, it will be choosing to accept China as a strategic rival.
Essentially, 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.
The need for a decision seems to have emerged very suddenly. China’s economic growth has been obvious, but not where it has been leading.
In truth, any attempt by either Beijing or Washington to dominate will lead to sustained and bitter strategic rivalry, imposing huge economic costs and a real risk of catastrophic war. Neither side could win, and both would stand to lose a great deal – but it could easily happen. Strategic competition quickly builds its own momentum, escalating to the point where war can seem inescapable. War between the United States and China is already a clear and significant danger, one that will grow if rivalry increases. This is the most important issue at stake in America’s China choice. Asia’s alternative futures are not American or Chinese supremacy. They are escalating rivalry, or some form of great-power accommodation that constrains that rivalry. America’s real choice is not between dominating or withdrawing from Asia: it is between taking China on as a strategic rival, or working with it as a partner.
The third option carries many obvious risks, which would quickly rule it out of contention were it not for the greater risks that flow from the alternatives. Moreover, this option can only be realised if America and China are willing to compromise with each other. Neither side will find that easy. For China it will mean abandoning hopes to lead Asia and accepting a strong US presence there indefinitely. For America it will mean accepting that its unique leadership role is no longer feasible, and learning to work with China as a partner in a way that America has never done with another country before – and certainly not with one so different from it. But this is the kind of choice America must now consider.