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US-China: Questions for Hugh White

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10 March 2010 15:17

Geoff Miller is the former Director-General of the Office of National Assessments.

In recent comments on Obama's coming visit and on the great powers' interests in Afghanistan, Hugh White has repeated one of his most constant themes, the need for the US to adapt to China's rise. But in terms of practical policies, what would this mean? What does he want the US to do?

The US has a structure of very important bilateral treaties, especially with Japan, and also, notably, with us. The US also maintains a substantial military presence in the Pacific — in Hawaii, Guam and Japan, including in Okinawa. Presumably it is not going to abrogate these arrangements, and nor would we want it to.

The US has made it possible to join the EAS by acceding to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, but it's not clear that it will seek to join the EAS, or that Asian members, including Japan, want it to. It's fair to say that, member or not, US interests and views will never be far from the awareness of current EAS members; in so many important ways it's their 'significant other'. But there is also a long history of Asian countries' interest in an organisation 'of their own', in which they set the agenda.

The Korean peninsula is an area, or issue, with which both China and the US are deeply engaged. It's hard to be optimistic about outcomes from the Six-Party Talks framework, given the difficulty of the issue and North Korea's unpredictability, but it's also hard to maintain that the US needs to change its method of handling the issue in order to align with China more closely.

The Taiwan issue is perhaps one area on which the US might with advantage consider changing its attitude. The current arms sale row seems something of an anachronism, given the improved relations between Beijing and Taipei and the ever-increasing integration of their economies. 

There's a treatment of this question in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs, in which Bruce Gilley contends (subscription required) that the US should support, not oppose, the 'Finlandization' of Taiwan, in the interests of promoting 'long-term peace through closer economic, social and political ties between Taiwan and China'. Such a change would not be easy; the US 1979 Taiwan Relations Act provides for continuing arms sales to Taiwan. But if it occurred it would certainly have further consequences for US strategy in the region.

It would be interesting to know whether a change of policy on Taiwan figures in White's view of what the US should do to adapt to the new situation and, whether it does or not, what is the set of policies he would like the US to adopt.

Photo by Flickr user imovermyhead, used under a Creative Commons license.

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