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Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 13:11 | SYDNEY
Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 13:11 | SYDNEY

Niall Ferguson and his critics (again)

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23 August 2012 13:33

I did worry that my response to the now infamous Niall Ferguson Newsweek cover story could be read as a defence of Ferguson. Dan Nexon at Duck of Minerva (a blog you should definitely bookmark) has read my piece in just that way, which gives me a chance to explain my argument a little better.

Actually, I think Nexon just uses my post as a convenient jumping-off point to criticise Ferguson's take on Obama's foreign policy record, and I agree with much that Nexon says. I also agree with the critics about the general shoddiness of Ferguson's piece.

My post was focused quite narrowly on the graph Ferguson used about China's economy overtaking America in GDP terms, and the fact that his critics had overlooked the full implications of that graph. The critics I cited all made worthwhile points about the benefits of China's rise, but they did not address the geopolitical implications. 

Ferguson does address this point, but it's hard to know from this piece alone what his preferred US policy toward China really is. If Ferguson's solution is for America to strengthen its military presence in Asia so that it can maintain the present regional order and balance of power, then I think he is wrong.

But my main concern really isn't with Ferguson at all. Let's agree it's a poor article and leave it at that. My concern is with Ferguson's critics, who in their responses did not present their vision of how to cope with the strategic implications of China's rise. They focused on the benefits of Chinese economic growth but said nothing about the inevitable complications that come from the rise of a new superpower.

But those complications can't be ignored, and it's not enough to say, as Michael Cohen does on Democracy Arsenal, that China does not present a direct military threat to the US and will remain a much smaller military power for the foreseeable future. Of course those things are true, but that's not the end of the discussion.

For the Asia Pacific, the key issue is whether the present regional order can be maintained as a new global power emerges. Is it likely that China, set to have the largest economy in the world in a few decades, will be content to leave America's strategic predominance in the region untouched? Surely that's wishful thinking, and in fact we know it won't happen because China is already trying to undermine this supremacy with its 'anti-access' strategy. We have probably already passed the point at which the US could intervene in a conflict over Taiwan at an acceptable cost, so clearly the strategic balance is shifting.

OK, China is not going to have the capacity to invade America or even project power to America's shores (except with ICBMs and cyberwar) any time soon. But the US has allies and vital interests in the Asia Pacific, which have been protected for decades with overwhelming military strength. But that status quo is now being tested, and at present, the tone of American commentary seems to be toward resisting this shift by moving more military force to the region — the debate seems to be merely about how much.

Needless to say, such an approach carries serious risks, and as my colleague Hugh White has argued, maybe it's time to think much more about sharing power with China rather than trying to stare it down or engage in an arms race. That's a difficult and painful discussion, and the reactions to Ferguson's piece indicate to me that American critics of a confrontationalist approach to China are yet to face up to it.

Photo by Flickr user Trent Strohm.

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