Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Australia and China Rising

Interesting talk-starters from an old colleague of mine, given to a luncheon of his Club in Sydney, below the fold.
My comments here:
I’m not surprised your talk was a “big hit”.  An elegant (as ever!) and stimulating thought-starter.

I remember White’s thesis in the Oz media a while back, perhaps via
The Australian's Greg Sheridan (for whom I’ve a lot of time) and seem to recall the firestorm of criticism — “soft on China” and all that.

For my part, I think I’d be plumping for a version of Option 2: but even “softer” --  China as an Ally.  They were allies during the War, after all.  There are worse that the US considers “allies” (Pakistan, Saudi, eg).  China is part of the “construction” world, that is, its focus is on building its economy, trade, improving the lot of its people, building science and infrastructure, and the rest of it -- pragmatic in other words.  It is no longer any existential threat to the west as the Soviet Union was in the Cold War.

This may be idealistic, perhaps naïve.  But it’s hard to see how explicit contention,
à la Obama (Option 3) can lead to lowering of an arms race in the region.  As Hugh says in a Nov ‘11 article  “...China will have to be persuaded to accept US leadership in Asia... That seems unlikely”.

The current edition of
The Atlantic has some interesting discussion on China, via comments on Mearsheimer’s “offensive realism” (he of the Israel Lobby in the US fame-infamy).  I rather like James Fallows’ comments.  Kaplan’s rebuttal is interesting.

Mrs Battle's comments (which I’ve told her is true of any large country, and that generalisations and big-picture are needed):

When taking about China, people use "China" as ONE and most times somehow forgot China has not only a large geographically diverse population, but also has a politically diverse groups - the battle for power to control China has been going on for many centuries. The people who can play the differences among different political groups in China would have the more effective strategy.
Sailing, as we do, in the South China Sea, I must say I’m comforted by the presence of the PLA Navy: keeping pirates at bay, for example!  We live under the suzerainty of “the Motherland” already.  And while I’m not at all rosy-eyed about the Mainland (the corruption, crime, suppression of free speech, and all of it), nonetheless, here in our little Hong Kong, rich, neat, tidy, free and safe -- yet ultimately in the control of Beijing -- I’m pretty comfortable with it...).

On the negative side re China: I recall sometime ago someone saying that the US had a “Big Idea” -- “Freedom”. By contrast, said this person, China had no “Big Idea” (perhaps in the early days it was “Communism”; but no longer).  I’ve thought on and off whether that’s true, or if it does have one.  I’m not sure this is it, or if it’s big and worthy enough to be a “Big Idea” -- “Order”.  Confucian; practical. Not that Big?  Ah well...


I would like to see whether we can have a conversation about China and the way Australia relates to it.

We all know that China is a vast country of 1.4 billion people and that it has been growing at a phenomenal rate since Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms of 1979.   In 2010, it overtook Japan to become the second largest economy in the world (in exchange rate terms).  In 20 or so years it may overtake the USA.
We know as well that America has been the primary military power in the Western Pacific since WWII and unchallenged since Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.
We in Australia have prospered through the paradoxical combination of fast-growing demand for our exports from China and the regional stability of the Pax Americana.
Can this continue forever?  Professor Hugh White of the ANU doesn’t think so.  His Quarterly Essay entitled Power Shift, published in September 2010, was based on a premise.  This was that it is just not feasible for China to keep on growing forever and for America to retain its strategic primacy in Asia.
The Question
The questions then are, first, how will the rivalry of America and China in Asia be resolved?  And, very much second, what can we do to try to achieve a good outcome for us?  Third, we might ask what preparations we have to make against the contingency that all does not turn out well. 
I don’t propose to spend a lot of time on the third very complex question, which lies at the core of the major Defence Posture Review now being carried out by Ric Smith and Allan Hawke.
However, it is worth reflecting on the importance of these questions.  America has never before been challenged by a power that expects to grow bigger than it is.  Already, China is larger in proportion to America than the USSR was at any point in the Cold War, although it is less well armed.  And the consequences for Australia of a bad outcome could obviously be truly awful.
Options for America and China
White says America must choose one of three options in the face of rising Chinese power in Asia:
1.     America can pull back, or withdraw, leaving China a free hand to dominate Asia.  While highly unlikely, this could be a rational choice.  Incredible though it may seem, it is the philosophy of one of the Republican candidates for President, Ron Paul.

2.     America can share power with China, probably dealing in the two other main Asian powers, Japan and in the future India into a sharing arrangement (White thinks Russia will not be a major force, being preoccupied with Europe and the Middle East).  White developed this idea and likened it to the Concert of Europe after the wars of Napoleon.  This brought together Austria, Prussia, the UK, Russia and later France in a stable arrangement that lasted for much of the 19th century.  The response by the commentariat to White’s essay was that this was a nice idea but not likely to work.

3.     America can compete with China, extending the “pivot” to Asia announced by President Obama earlier this year and probably drawing in as allies India, Japan, ourselves and others.  Confrontation would result, possibly cool but perhaps hotter and very dangerous.

China’s view

China is sometimes ambivalent in its signals.  It confronts the other claimants to the South China Sea quite aggressively and makes belligerent noises towards Taiwan.  However, the dominant message it puts out is one of “peaceful rise”.  It has a strong interest in maintaining regional stability, as much of its business depends on it.

What about us?

Where does this leave us? 

It won’t be up to us to decide which path America follows.  If we are very clever, we may be able to influence their choice a bit, and this is worth doing when the stakes are so high.

I think our best hope is to side with the Americans but not slavishly.  The Darwin Marine base may fit this: it is small and might be seen as part of a partial American pull-back from points closer to China.  Bob Carr’s statements as foreign minister seems to be heading this way, as he sought to water down things he had said as a private citizen in his blog.

Kevin Rudd lectured the Chinese that Australia could be a zhengyou, a firm or principled friend who could give honest if unpalatable advice.  This did not go down all that well with his hosts, but America might accept this kind of friendship.

I will open up the discussion at this point but first ask you to spare a thought for Japan as it looks at the same issue.  They have a much harder set of questions to deal with than we do.  Japan is very close to China and much more directly threatened; there is ugly unfinished business in the history of Japan and China; and its economy is in decline.