Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:52 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:52 | SYDNEY

What has surprised me about this year? China\ hubris and America\ adaptation


Hugh White

13 December 2010 15:04

I've spent most of this year focused on the US-China relationship, and two things have surprised me.

First, I've been unpleasantly surprised by how assertive China has been this year, especially at sea. I think it has always been inevitable that China would one day leave behind Deng's injunction to hide its power, but to have become so bolshie so fast on navigation issues in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea seems clearly counter-productive for China. 

Having spent a decade very successfully reassuring everyone in Asia (except, of course, Japan) that they had little to fear from Chinese power, the Chinese have now given everyone a good reason to worry. And any countervailing gains to China seem modest at best. There are several possible explanations for what seems poor policymaking in Beijing: the PLA flexing its muscles, rivalry between leadership factions as the post-Hu transition is hammered out, or simple hubris grown uncontrollable by the GFC. All of these are possible, and none is reassuring. 

One detects a note of glee from some Western commentators and governments that the Chinese should be so dumb as to shoot themselves in the foot this way. I think that is unwise. Managing the implications of China's growing power for Asia's order is going to be very hard even if the hard men in Beijing are completely cool and rational about it. If they keep acting like this, it is going to be that much harder, and that is not good for America or anyone else.

Second, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the way some Americans, at least, have responded to the questions about the future of America's power and role posed by China's rise. In my recent Quarterly Essay, I raised a few of them myself in rather stark terms, and I would not have been surprised had I received some rather blunt and dismissive responses from American audiences. 

In fact, the opposite is the case. I spent a few days in Washington at the start of the month, and was struck by how willing my interlocutors were to address head-on the questions I raised about America's future role in Asia.

My impression is that almost all of those I spoke to accepted that the US would have to modify its leadership role in Asia at least to some extent to accommodate China's power. That leaves open huge issues for debate about when such adjustments should be made, and how big they should be. 

Few of my interlocutors agreed with me that the concessions should be relatively large and made quite soon. But the fact that they accept the principle seems to me more significant than differences in timing and degree. And remarkably, I did find some who agreed with me on timing and degree. I can no longer say that I have never met an American who thinks his country should be prepared to treat China as an equal. That to me was a very welcome surprise. Perhaps it should not have been. What we see at work is that great American capacity for adaptation and self-reinvention.

Photo by Flickr user Luther Bailey.