Whiting was University of Arizona Regents' Professor of Political Science from 1993 to his retirement, having joined the university in 1982. He graduated from Cornell University in 1948, earned a master's degree from Columbia University in 1950 and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1952. After first joining the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University, he became a researcher at the RAND Corporation and served in several capacities in the U.S. Department of State, including head of the Far Eastern Division of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research and deputy consul general in Hong Kong. He then taught at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1968-1982. Whiting has been a member of the Board of Directors of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, the Association for Asian Studies, and the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
Whiting's first published monograph was Soviet Policies in China, 1917-1924 (1954).
His 1958 Sinkiang: Pawn or Pivot? includes Whiting's "Soviet Strategy in Sinkiang: 1933-49" (pp. 3–148), which analyzes the background and the international rivalry between Moscow and the Chinese central government in this period, and "Red Failure in Sinkiang," the memoirs of Sheng Shicai, the military ruler of Xinjiang (Sinkiang, as it was spelled at the time), from 1933 to 1949. The book also includes archival material, for instance Sheng's interrogation and 1943 execution of Mao Zemin, the brother of Mao Zedong.
While studying in Taiwan in 1954, having heard that Sheng had come there with the Nationalist government after the communist victory on the mainland, Whiting inquired as to Sheng's whereabouts and was told that they were "unknown." Whiting then met and interviewed Sheng extensively and edited his memoirs for this book. Whiting also interviewed Nationalist government officials who had dealt with Sheng, Stalin, and Xinjiang, as well as exploring archives in Taiwan and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo. He received helpful accounts of wartime diplomacy from O. Edmund Clubb, who opened the first American consulate in Urumchi in 1943. Although he thanks Owen Lattimore in the Foreword for adding "another dimension of understanding," Whiting explains that by titling the book "pawn or pivot," he wished to place a different emphasis from Lattimore's 1950 book Pivot of Asia and from those who saw the region as simply a pawn of the neighboring great powers. Taking the advice of a friend, he observed that in chess a "pawn" could also be a "pivot."
Since Xinjiang was an important communication link between Moscow and the Chinese Communist Party headquarters in Yan'an, Sheng's memoirs illuminate the sometimes angry relations between Stalin and Mao Zedong as well as Sheng's swing away from Moscow to ally with China.
China Crosses the Yalu: the Decision to Enter the Korean War is a monograph based on research for the United States Air Force by the RAND Corporation. Whiting argues that China entered the Korean War reluctantly and to protect its border against a perceived American threat. This view became widely accepted at a time when many other observers saw the People's Republic as irrational and expansionist. William Stueck's 2002 review of scholarship on the Korean War concluded that in its "broad outlines, Whiting's account remains plausible if hardly incontestable."
In 1990 two political scientists at Taiwan's National Chengchi University revisited the question of China's decision. They noted that "Whiting's comprehensive study of China's decision to enter the war, and some of his inferences and conclusions, were closer to the truth than those of most other western analysts"; considering the limited materials he had then from the Chinese side, "probably no one could have done better than he did." But they also saw evidence that Whiting was "deeply biased ideologically, and overlooked many important factors." He assumed that "patron-client relations existed between Stalin and Mao, which "limited the possibilities he could explore," rather than seeing that China's primary concern was for security in the face of a hostile power on their border.
Whiting was recruited from his position in the RAND Corporation in late 1961 and became head of the Far Eastern Division of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
In 1962, as the Cuban Missile Crisis was breaking out, Whiting and his group correctly predicted that border clashes between India and China would escalate into the Sino-Indian War of 1962, and that China would initiate and then inflict a humiliating military defeat on America's ally, India. When President Kennedy then sent Averell Harriman to India to keep relations calm, Whiting and his group, including a specialist in Tibetan affairs, were dispatched with them. In the words of a National Security Archive history, Whiting's group "embarrassed the U.S. military, and helped Harriman's mission, because their excellent maps ... were much better than anything the military had and formed the basis for policy discussions."
Whiting had responsibility for gathering and analyzing intelligence on the People's Republic of China at a time when there were no diplomatic relations and direct access was not possible but calculating China's intentions was important in making military decisions in the Vietnam war. In his memoirs, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara complained that he was hampered in decision-making because there were no diplomats who were as familiar with China as those were who were familiar with Russia. Reviewers took exception to this claim. Roger Hilsman, who had been assistant secretary of state in the Kennedy administration, pointed to Whiting as just such a Chinese speaking expert. The problem, he said, was not that the department did not have such experts but that MacNamara would not listen to them.
Hilsman's successor, Thomas L. Hughes, wrote in his own review of McNamara's book that Whiting regularly briefed McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Whiting. said Hughes, warned Pentagon officials in August 1964 that North Vietnam would retaliate against American air bases after the bombings of Hanoi. Whiting recommended that aircraft be moved to Thailand or provided with extra security. Neither action was taken and the planes suffered heavy damage when the bases were attacked.
Whiting's State Department group was often at odds with the CIA and military, whose assessments of the intentions of China and the North Vietnamese often contended that the application of force, such as escalated bombing, would induce Hanoi to make concessions or come to the bargaining table. Whiting's group considered those views unrealistic and predicted that the Chinese would willing to take military action if pushed. Whiting later conceded that in the end the fear of Chinese intervention may have gone too far, although Chinese intervention may have been prevented by the split in the leadership and China's turn inward at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1965. His State Department intelligence group then correctly predicted that China would limit itself to low risk support of North Vietnam, such as allowing use of air bases in southwest China. Whiting found on a trip to Vietnam, however, that high level U.S. Navy intelligence estimates of Chinese capabilities did not include the existence of these airbases, which Whiting knew to exist. He was warned that some disgruntled fighter pilots identified him as a source of resistance to the air war and that he might be in danger of bodily harm.
As the American involvement in Vietnam became deeper and more contentious, Whiting became a frequent adviser to George W. Ball, then deputy undersecretary of state, who President Lyndon Johnson consulted as a counterweight to more hawkish advisers, and also to Averell Harriman. But in 1966, when McGeorge Bundy, Whiting's direct contact in the White House, was replaced by the more hawkish Walt Rostow, Whiting accepted the position of deputy consul in the US consulate in Hong Kong.
In 1968, he became professor of political science at University of Michigan, where he taught until 1982.
The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence: India and Indochina compared two situations in which China's decision-makers moved to deter foreign powers. The first was the situation leading up to the `1962 Sino-Indian War and the second was that in Vietnam in the mid-1960s.
Andrew Scobell calls it a "classic work" based on a "meticulous mining of the limited sources available to the author in the early 1970s." It "holds up remarkably well today." The body of the work focuses, Scobell says, on a “systematic reconstruction of the Chinese decisions which... led to war with India” in 1962 and then "carefully compares this case study with Chinese decision making to intervene in the Korean War in 1950 and the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s." Whiting portrays China as a "cautious and conservative power that uses force as a last resort only after repeated signaling has failed to deter its adversary." After its publication in 1975, many internal Chinese documents, memoirs, and histories were published in the PRC. the author is more sanguine about Chinese thinking on military force.
John W. Garver writing in 2005 noted that Whiting and the British journalist Neville Maxwell reached the same broad conclusion: "China's resort to war in 1962 was largely a function of perceived Indian aggression." New China sources, Garver continued, made possible a "testing" of this "Whiting-Maxwell thesis." While finding that the thesis was largely sound, Garver added that Mao's judgments about Indian motives were shaped by fundamental attribution error, which finds that it is common to explain the motivation of others in terms of their character or culture while explaining one's own motivation by external necessity, and psychological projection, that is, ascribing one's own suppressed aggression to others.
In 2001, Whiting took advantage of new publications and archives to write an article reconsidering The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence. He adjusted his earlier assessment of Chinese caution and observed that in addition to being deliberative and calculating, Chinese leaders exhibited an alarming propensity for risk-taking.
China Eyes Japan, published by University of California Press in 1989, uses both the official Chinese press and anonymous interviews with policy-making elites in China to focus on the tensions between the two countries which grew in the 1980s.
Donald Klein, reviewing the book in Journal of Asian Studies says that Whiting "describes these events in masterful fashion" and "never pushes his evidence to prove some preconceived notion." Whiting granted anonymity to his subjects in order to understand how much Chinese were publicly displaying indignation as a bargaining tactic and how much this sense of historic wrong affected policy. What emerges from Whiting's analysis, Klein continues, is the "indelible point" of the "depth and fervor of China's historic memory of Japan's past predatory policies" and the "special intensity" concerning the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. Although some Chinese officials admired Japan's economic success, Whiting's off-the-record interviews made clear that the feelings of enmity were serious and sincere. Whiting concluded that "the conventional cliche about a 'love-hate relationship' does not apply," for "there is no 'love' on the Chinese side...."
The volume New Directions In The Study Of China’s Foreign Policy, edited by Alastair Iain Johnston and Robert S. Ross, grew out of a December 2002 conference held in Whiting's honor at Harvard University. Chapters in the volume revisit Whiting's books in order to reconsider the arguments in light of new evidence.The editors note in their concluding remarks that Whiting has “long argued that China’s government pursues its international goals with basic rationality,” even those “ideologically fundamentalist actors, like Mao himself.” They add that “rationality” is conditioned by “perceptions and misconceptions” held both by China’s foreign policy elites and the elites of other countries. This understanding includes an emphasis on the role of historical legacies and the links between domestic political legitimacy. Whiting, they say, has taught a lesson: "to try to see China and the world the way that influential Chinese see China and the world and you will be not only a much better scholar but a more effective advisor to those creating policy toward Beijing in the United States and elsewhere. Empathy, not sympathy, is critical.”Whiting, Allen S. (1954). Soviet Policies in China, 1917-1924. New York: Columbia University Press. Hathi Trust (search only).
—— (1956). Dynamics of International Relations. with Ernst Haas. New York,: McGraw-Hill.
—— (1958). Sinkiang: Pawn or Pivot?. with Shicai Sheng. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press. Full-view Hathi Trust
—— (1960). China Crosses the Yalu: the Decision to Enter the Korean War. New York,: Macmillan.
—— (1975). The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence: India and Indochina. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472969005.
—— (1976). China and the United States, What Next?. New York: Foreign Policy Association.
—— (1977). China's Future: Foreign Policy and Economic Development in the Post-Mao Era. with Dernberger, Robert F. New York: McGraw Hill. ISBN 0070699585.
—— (1979). Chinese Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy in the 1970's. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan. ISBN 0892640367.
—— (1981). Siberian Development and East Asia: Threat or Promise?. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804711097.
—— (1989). China Eyes Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520065115.
—— (2001). "China's Use of Force, 1950–96, and Taiwan". International Security. 26 (2): 103–131. doi:10.1162/016228801753191150.