Articles by " Ross Terrill"

Reflections on Whitlam

Gough Whitlam by Clifton Pugh

In memory of Gough Whitlam (1916–2014) and his contribution to Australian foreign policy, we republish here a brief excerpt from Ross Terrill’s ASPI Strategy paper, Facing the dragon, on Whitlam’s 1971 visit to China:

Zhou Enlai welcomed Whitlam to the East Chamber of the Great Hall of the People, with its leaping murals and crimson carpets. Present also were Chinese Foreign Minister Ji Pengfei and Trade Minister Bai Xiangguo. Zhou, a slight, handsome man with a theatrical manner, was all in grey except for a red ‘Serve the People’ badge, black socks inside his sandals, and black hair flecking the grey.

Whitlam gave Zhou a good account of Australia’s foreign policy, but showed little understanding of the impact of the split between Beijing and Moscow on Chinese and American thinking. The premier spent minutes criticising former US secretary of state John Foster Dulles for his policies of ‘encircling China’. He reached for his tea mug, sipped, and went on, ‘Today, Dulles has a successor in our northern neighbour’. Whitlam said ‘You mean Japan?’ Zhou was curt in response: ‘Japan is to the east of us—I said to the north’.

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No doubt it was hard for a leader on the Australian left to accept that Mao’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might think of the Soviet Union as an enemy. In the exchanges about Dulles, the encircling of China and the Vietnam War, Whitlam unwisely volunteered that ‘The American people will never allow an American president to again send troops to another country’. Of course, they’ve done so numerous times since 1971, often without Chinese opposition.

If Zhou was tough on the Soviet Union, he was almost as tough on Japan. He feared that the Nixon Doctrine, asking for self-reliance on the part of US allies in Asia, would turn Japan into America’s ‘vanguard in East Asia’. He called it ‘the spirit of using Asians to fight Asians’ or, coining a new term, ‘using Austral-Asians to fight Asians’.

One of his strongest criticisms of Moscow, indeed, was its failure to oppose ‘Japanese militarism’. He feared that Japan would develop nuclear weapons. ‘Look at our so-called ally’, Zhou said to Whitlam of the Soviet Union. ‘They are in warm relations with the Sato government of Japan and also engaged in warm discussions on so-called ‘nuclear disarmament’ with the Nixon government, while China, their ally, is threatened by both of these.’

‘Is your own ally so very reliable?’ the Chinese premier challenged Whitlam. ‘They have succeeded in dragging you onto the Vietnam battlefield. How is that defensive? That is aggression.’ To his credit, Whitlam defended ANZUS. Later, Whitlam told me that he was surprised Zhou hadn’t attacked the American intelligence facilities in Australia. In fact, the omission was a sign that Mao was no longer as worried about the US as about the Soviet Union. However, the Chinese Foreign Minister did raise with Whitlam China’s unease that Australia had troops stationed in Singapore and Malaysia.

When the Labor leader expressed acceptance of the ‘One China’ principle that Beijing asked of foreign partners, the premier said crisply, ‘So far this is only words. When you return to Australia and become prime minister you will be able to carry out actions’.

And this reflection:

In December 1972, Prime Minister Whitlam, taking streamlined steps generally impossible in Washington, within a month of taking office reached agreement with Beijing on diplomatic relations, cut relations with Taiwan, and appointed the first Australian ambassador to the PRC. There were critics of the haste. Hugh Dunn (later the only Australian diplomat to be ambassador in both Taiwan and Beijing) was told by Chinese ambassador Huang Zhen, who negotiated with Australian ambassador Alan Renouf in Paris, that ‘Australia’s was the easiest’ of all negotiations over recognition he had handled. Observed Dunn, ‘The Chinese knew we wished to reach agreement quickly … one should never negotiate against a unilaterally self-imposed deadline’. Still, most Australians felt the step was overdue.

Ross Terrill is an associate of Harvard’s Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies. Image courtesy of Flickr user Bobby Graham.

Reader response: China’s new dream

Shanghai Financial District as seen from the Oriental Pearl

David Hale’s ‘China’s new dream‘ offers a tremendously rich picture of China’s economic and financial situation at home and globally. It’s probably the fullest, most up-to-date account available on the ‘re-rise of China’, which affects us all.

Hale makes excellent suggestions, such as raising the retirement age, and makes important points about the growing relation between the Internet and financial services, and other matters. His tourism figures are stunning; Chinese will soon strut the global shopping stage as Americans did in the 1950s and 1960s, bringing both profits and resentment to cities on every continent.

Global markets permit a jump start for poor countries but the process comes to an end. Understandably, Hale isn’t sure China can become a high-income country, but regardless of per capita levels, China has become an economic giant. Not even political setbacks are going to change that reality. And Hale is surely correct to warn that even a democratic China would ‘still be vulnerable to populism and nationalism’. Read more

But it would be a mistake to think China is just an economic animal. It has always been and will be more than that. It’s also a mistake to think China is simply recovering from a difficult past. The China Dream will unfold more ambitiously than that.

Hale takes the words from the 18th Party Congress and ensuing Plenum as equating with imminent changes; one hopes this is justified. Nation-wide implementation is the catch. Similar words on privatising state-owned enterprises and cleaning up banks were spoken after the 17th Congress in 2003 and not much happened. Beijing’s relation with far-flung localities is crucial. It’s tempting for a province to give untrue statistics to Beijing to sweeten its path. The new Shanghai free trade zone can’t go too far lest its freedoms contaminates other cities.

Xi Jinping may have ‘tremendous power,’ but it’s doubtful that translates into bold steps. Collective leadership, which Hale briefly weighs, won’t risk fundamental changes that could undermine Communist Party power. Bo Xilai didn’t fall simply from corruption—his takings were relatively minor—but from power struggle.

So questions arise in the reader’s mind about interactions and potential contradictions within China’s array of achievements and aspirations; interactions between economic rationality and social stability; between certain foreign policy decisions and minority restiveness near China’s borders; and between aims and means in further reforms (Chinese politicians won’t ‘report all of their assets’ until a free press arrives to verify). What’s good for Chinese consumers isn’t the same as what serves the glory of the Chinese party-state. Freeing capital movements, necessary to many desirable goals, can’t happen without other wider freedoms. Land-grabbing from farmers by towns can’t stop, because there are few fiscal rules to stop it.

Hale takes for granted the unity of China’s vast realm, but not all its leaders do. I also missed in ‘China’s New Dream’ a realisation of the tight atmosphere for mental freedom under Xi Jinping, or the uncertainty (as yet) as to what characteristics Premier Li will bring to the job. Li speaks of China benefiting from its environment, whereas Xi stresses China’s past tribulations. It’s a significant difference of emphasis.

Is China still feeling its way to the top table, or grabbing for the chair? No one knows, probably including Xi. The ‘new type of great power relationship’ he proposed to Obama isn’t in Beijing’s hands alone to achieve. China’s future could lie with globalising forces or with Chinese nationalism. Australia, for whom globalising forces are more important than either a regional niche or strong nationalism, must hope for the former.

Hale’s somewhat unsure of America’s future in Asia Pacific, and thus its ability to balance Chinese power, and under Obama that’s a reasonable doubt. But Washington’s many friends in the region can be formidable if united for free trade and free information. Not everyone will agree that ‘doctors and health insurance companies will determine whether America continues to be the world’s leading military power’—the America people might have a say in that. When led and unleashed they’re quite a force.

Hale gives a good picture of Australia’s position and choices. It’s true we’re a long way from northeast Asia. But it has always been the Australian way to seek friends on a global basis. That has led to sacrifices, but also great fruits for Australia. Still, Australia should also take China’s activity in the South Pacific seriously, for here we stand virtually alone with mighty China.

Ross Terrill is an associate of Harvard’s Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies. Image courtesy of Flickr user Sjekster.

Beijing and Washington: share first, trust later

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the beginning of a bilateral meeting in Beijing, China, on April 13, 2013. The gathering’s theme was ‘Security and Cooperation in the Asia Pacific Region,’ yet the US–China relationship dominated. The symposium run by the China Institute for International Strategic Studies was free of academic mumbo-jumbo. The sessions, at which Bob Hawke and I were the two Australian participants, seemed under a spell cast by Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping. Even the Southeast Asian voices adopted the Eagle–Dragon focus, though not willingly. Said a Malaysian scholar: ‘Why do you Chinese engage with the US all the time and never with us, especially at the military level? The result is we don’t really know where China is headed.’

The Chinese were frustrated that their goals came across as unclear. But ‘peace and development’ is a vague definition of a rising superpower’s aims. The real goal was implied by a smart Chinese military officer: ‘Security mechanisms in the region have the mark of the Cold War and are exclusive and not conducive to trust’. The message is clear: China wants US security pacts in the Pacific ended or weakened. Kevin Rudd will find Beijing tougher on this matter now than during 2007–2010. Read more

The Chinese play a game of the pot calling the kettle black over criticisms by the US. When Defense Secretary Hagel expressed ‘disappointment’ with China’s role in Edward Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong, the Chinese said they were equally ‘disappointed at NSA aggression’ against China revealed in Snowden’s disclosures. Over the riots in Xinjiang last month, the Chinese also turned criticism back at the US; Washington should not fret at Chinese police response in China’s far west, they say, because the rioting Muslims are trying to ‘overthrow the Beijing government’ and Americans ought to condemn these ‘terrorists’ as they do terrorists in Boston or New York.

Yet there’s an element of shadow boxing to this game of pot and kettle. The Beijing government is certainly argumentative, but its actual policy towards the US is more cautious than the rhetoric on these two issues may suggest.

Interestingly, a Chinese historian said that fascist powers’ overreaching in the 1940s taught China a lesson, as did the Soviet Union’s in various places and the US’s in Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘We will never go that route of overreaching,’ he vowed. ‘The territorial dispute [in the Senkakus] occurs because the outcome of WWII is being disputed,’ said a senior Chinese analyst. Actually, what’s being disputed is the lesser place for China implied in the post-WWII alignment of the US and Japan in the Western Pacific. Beijing is challenging this 65-year-old status quo. It’s a delicate dance. A Chinese participant reasoned: ‘The Asia Pacific is big enough to accommodate US, China, Russia and other countries.’ Like other Chinese at the symposium he seemed reluctant to utter the word ‘Japan’.

The South China Sea disputes weren’t probed in detail (no Philippines delegate was present) but a Vietnamese purred: ‘Major powers have a special responsibility to handle the suspicions of smaller countries’. The Indonesian military speaker took an indirect approach, rich with a hint to Beijing, pointing out Jakarta’s success in establishing good relations with East Timor despite the difficult origins of the mini-state and Jakarta’s patience in calming the situation in Aceh Province.

India only came up when I mentioned that ‘Indo-Pacific’ is Canberra’s favoured regional label, and in a direct assault by the female Pakistani who warned: ‘Please be aware the rise of India to real power would bring to the fore manifold territorial disputes in South Asia between India and its neighbours.’ She may be correct—China’s rise has certainly produced heightened disputes in the Chinese seas.

According to several Chinese, two models of leadership exist in the region, ‘two ways of leading: hegemony and conciliation’. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke expressed a view many Australians would accept: ‘We want America to stay in Asia on a basis that China is willing to accept, and we want China to accept that America should remain as a major power in the region’.

The idea of America and China ‘sharing’ leadership in the Asia Pacific is fine, but sharing comes in many forms. The US and the USSR shared a fear (‘mutual assured destruction’) that in the end kept the peace. Shared American and Chinese values would make shared leadership easy, but a values gap exists and partial overlap of interests is all we can expect. Washington and Beijing could find overlap on Korea, by replacing the futile disarmament talks with a fresh agenda for Korean reunification, orchestrated and guaranteed by China and the US. Perhaps the TPP offers another chance. It is not exclusive (despite claims to the contrary), it could be conducive to trust, and Chinese membership in TPP would be a boon for China’s internal reformers—as happened when Beijing joined the WTO.

There’s a precedent—Mao and Nixon found an overlap of interests in 1972, despite no pre-existing trust, no trade, and no diplomatic relations between the two when Nixon landed in Beijing. The mantra of trust is overdone. Trust comes when results accrue, not through smiles and banquets. Beijing and Washington began to trust each other in the 1970s after seeing the electric impact of the Mao–Nixon handshake on Moscow.

Today the Chinese and American view of each other is ambivalent. This could imply prudence on both sides, not ruling out real future cooperation. Less hopefully, it could mean the trajectory of China’s rise is so stark that neither Washington nor Beijing is quite sure of the next plateau for the relationship.

Chinese ambivalence exists not because the leadership is split toward the US, but due to a conscious yin-yang stance with a long pedigree. It’s worth nothing that Mao said in public in 1970, as he and Nixon were rubbing their hands ready for their startling rapprochement that the US ‘which looks like a huge monster, is in essence a paper tiger, now in the throes of its death-bed struggle’. Today Beijing pushes against Japan, India, Vietnam, Philippines and other US friends, yet it knows cooperation with Washington is in its best interests. Nibbling away, it seeks to lower the price it will pay for that inevitable cooperation. This might be a rational strategy at a time when the US is led by a diffident president.

At a meeting Hawke and a few of us from the symposium had with Yang Jiechi in Zhongnanhai, the top foreign policy figure in the government told us ‘China is going to be more active in the Middle East. America has failed in this region. China will try’. But equally prominent in Chinese statements is alarm that this same ‘failed’ US flexes its muscles to China’s disadvantage in its own backyard. The contradiction is revealing. Beijing is aware of US latent strength but uncertain about US will. Isn’t nearly everyone?

Ross Terrill is an Associate of Harvard’s Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies, and author of the recent ASPI paper Facing the dragon: China policy in a new era. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mao now

Mao's Mausoleum

Mao Zedong is the only 20th dictator to have a resurgence of life-after-death that is largely benign. A heavy influence on the 20th century, Mao was a major force in the history of Communist ideas and rule, and will be a great name in Chinese history. As a man of supreme power also possessing a doctrine, he is arguably unmatched in Chinese history. After successfully uniting China under his CCP in 1949, and following the Soviet model, he later pushed utopian policies culminating in the appalling Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Then he surprised the world again by welcoming anti-Communist Nixon to Beijing in 1972, transforming a bipolar world into a triangle, greatly to the disadvantage of Moscow.

Chinese compare Mao with the hardline emperor Qin Shihuang  (think terracotta soldiers) of two millennia ago. Westerners compare him with 20th century authoritarians Stalin and Hitler. But in the four decades since he was laid in a crystal box—displayed still at Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing—Mao’s ‘life after death’ has nothing in common with the posthumous fate of Stalin and Hitler. Read more

Yes, Deng Xiaoping criticised Mao, but did not vilify him as Germans did Hitler, or denounce him as Moscow did Stalin. Deng declared Mao 70% correct and 30% mistaken, hoping to forestall further perilous debate; meanwhile, he subtly dismantled Mao’s leftism and focused on economic development. He summed up his task-orientation: “I don’t care whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mouse”. Mao lived long enough to be the ‘Marx-Lenin-Stalin rolled into one’ of the Chinese Revolution. Deng needed just the Lenin part.

But the departed tyrant, to Deng’s irritation, experienced a life after death among Chinese farmers and youth, especially taxi drivers who hung a photo of him on the steering wheel to ward off accidents. Department stores used a model of Mao to display silk pajamas. Nightclub singers crooned songs that cited Mao’s words. Farmers clutched a Mao image as they fended off flood waters.

Some of this was nostalgia for Mao that reflected disappointment with Deng. Portraits of Mao printed for public sale leapt from 370,000 copies in a couple of years to 23 million and soon to 50 million. In Karaoke clubs young people enjoyed songs in praise of him, and even Mao temples appeared in the southeast.

Only once since 1976 has Mao been needed politically. Post-Tiananmen, the government plastered walls with Mao quotations and revived the heroic Lei Feng myth (“I am a cog in the machine of Chairman Mao’s Communist Party”). However, this phase was aborted by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Deng’s ensuing decision to cancel the leftist surge and promote stock exchanges.

After Deng died in 1997, new leader Jiang Zemin sought to place himself alongside Mao and Deng as a third milestone on China’s march to 20th century greatness. He associated himself with Mao’s grandson Mao Xinyu at the time of the centennial of Mao’s birth, to unveil a ten-meter-tall bronze statue of the Chairman. But no public enthusiasm was evident.

Today Xi Jinping quotes Mao approvingly, but the CCP mentions him less. The giant of 20th century China wafts into folklore, famous there like the Yellow Emperor, the Goddess of Mercy and other near-mythical figures.

The Olympic Games of 2008 seemed a set-back for Mao’s life-after-death. Many foreigners and maybe many Chinese wondered at the mention of Confucius but not Mao in the opening and closing ceremonies. Was it because Mao was a bone-deep Chinese nationalist, while the Olympic Games was about globalisation as well as about China?

Some say leftism could one day resurge in China under a Mao banner in the name of national unity, Chinese cultural pride, and economic equality. Mao’s grandson and thousands of activist intellectuals praise the Cultural Revolution on ‘Utopia’ and other websites. Others foresee a post-communist China falling into disorder, as happened in parts of the former Soviet Union, and Mao pressed into the service of fascism in the name of order, heroic leadership, and national pride.

If the 21st century is China’s, Mao may be seen as founder of a Golden Age. If China meets major trouble in trying to reconcile a new economy with a little-changed political system, he might be blamed for the entire communist experiment. Either way he might be viewed as a populist dictator with various strands to his thoughts, including anarchism, Confucianism, Marxism, Daoism, and fascism.

A Chinese tradition exists of leaders moving back and forth between real life and legend-dom. If smokers become a despised minority in 20–30 years, they may rally around the memory of Mao as a patron saint to validate their liking for cigarettes. Already, tourists to Jinggangshan mountains, a Mao base, toss unlit cigarettes onto Mao’s old wooden bed in remembrance of one who loved to smoke. This impulse has little to do with the issue of smoking and health, of course, but expresses a nostalgic affinity, attractive to people half-anxious at their smoking, across the boundary between today’s world and an ethereal world.

Last year I observed youth dining in a ‘Cultural Revolution-style’ café of rough-hewn tables with Mao quotations on the wall while chatting about sex and the stock market. In rural China the departed giant means more: a flawed emperor who remains a benign father figure. For the Communist Party, Mao still is serious business, a Lenin who is the on-going legitimation for its grip on power.

Ross Terrill of Harvard’s Centre for Chinese Studies is a visiting international senior fellow at ASPI. His biography of Mao is well known in China. Image courtesy of Flickr user Jorge Lascar.

Why does China spook the world?

Prime Minister E. G. Whitlam and Mrs Whitlam in front of the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, during Whitlam's visit to China in 1973.Former foreign minister Hayden said, “As Labor came to office in 1972 ‘China’ had become a symbol of a broad judgment of the need for change in many areas”. Stephen FitzGerald recalled of the atmosphere when Whitlam chose him as the first ambassador for Beijing: “I felt part of a movement for social change”. China is often erected as a symbol of a progressive golden age. And occasionally, by Americans, also as a symbol of adverse forces. Such abstraction is a perilous approach to the reality of China.

Japan helped pioneer China as a symbol in the 18th century, portraying it as giving non-Western meaning to Japan’s own existence. Russian thinkers in the same century took China as a symbol of virtue on the grounds that the Western Enlightenment esteemed Confucian China and therefore Russian intellectuals should too.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s and even today, the left in the west has erected China as a symbol for western guilt over imperialism (a stance useful to Beijing). In Japan, the left’s massive (unsuccessful) struggle against the US alliance in 1960 elevated China as the ‘anti-US’, and thus as brother to a Japan smothered by the American embrace. Today, China is popular among American intellectuals as a symbol of the west’s decline. Such declinists embrace the absurd Martin Jacques’ notion (in ‘When China rules the world’) that ‘China’s past is a symbol of the world’s future’. Read more

Today some Australians erect China as a symbol of a dawning Asian Century. I was asked in a radio interview this morning if China is the key to the Asian Century envisaged by PM Gillard. Such a question overlooks the challenges Beijing faces with many tensions, territorial disputes and contradictions with other countries in Asia (more than it has with Europe or the US). Beijing would have a tough time presiding over Asia and its history in Asia should give pause to folk who welcome China as replacement for the US in the Asia–Pacific. China was intermittently an imperial power in East Asia, not least in the climactic Qing Dynasty.

During the Marshall Mission to China in the 1940s which sought to reconcile Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek, General Marshall’s chief aide wrote home to his wife from Nanjing: “It seems that for time beyond man’s recollection, China has been the desire and design of people outside China. What that has to do with China, as China is today, is another question, but the fact remains that many nations have their eye on this place out here”. In truth, China isn’t a symbol of anything; it’s just multifaceted China. It’s hazardous to essentialise China into a symbol of guilt, hope or fear.

If we’re to choose a context for China’s rise, the best might be ‘modernising China is a major ingredient in globalisation’. The coincidence of enlightened post-Mao Chinese development policies and growing international economic interdependence is of great historical importance to the Asia Pacific. This actual China is distant from the ‘China’s past’ that Jacques calls the world’s future. Refreshingly, China’s current renaissance draws on ideas and resources from around the globe and across the political spectrum. China’s new civilisation will be one ingredient in globalised evolution, but not its heart. China‘s urban youth by no means focus on China’s past; why should Australian youth do so? The 21st century will not be China’s; it will not be any one country’s. That is, unless globalisation stalls, technology goes to sleep, and young people cease to trend cosmopolitan.

This post is excerpted from the author’s ASPI Strategy report ‘Facing the Dragon: China policy in a new era‘.

Ross Terrill of Harvard’s Centre for Chinese Studies is a visiting international senior fellow at ASPI. Image courtesy of DFAT.

The Defence White Paper’s vague hope

PM Gillard meets with HE Mr Li Keqiang, Premier of the People’s Republic of China. Ministers Carr, Emerson and Shorten were there. Ceremonial welcome and Witnesses Signing Ceremony . Great Hall of the People, Beijing , Prime Minister Gillard, Overseas visit to China 9 April 2013The Defence White Paper gives an excellent description of the Asia Pacific but is calm about its dangers. It is heartening on the ADF’s capacity to defend the nation and its near neighbourhood and rightly reaffirms ANZUS and the US role: ‘It is unambiguously in Australia’s national interest for the US to be active in our region as economic, political and military influence shifts towards it’. It’s also correct not to name China as an adversary. Saying what we stand for in the Asia Pacific, and how we plan to protect it, is more pertinent than saying who we fear.

But we can’t hide the fact that China is probing on multiple fronts for more space and clout, sustaining quarrels with numerous neighbours who are Australia’s friends. The only reason Australia is not among those nibbled, along with Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, India and others is that’s so far away. This partially justifies the White Paper’s silence, but is short-sighted.

There is no integration of the Alliance with the overall regional picture to manage what is a marked new challenge to the status quo. The White Paper seems reluctant to state the values that bind Australia and its friends together. Stating our values is not provocative. If that’s a message to China, it’s in the eye of the beholder.

The White Paper speaks eloquently of the need to protect prosperity and stability. But where do these two desiderata come from? Long-term stability comes from democracy and freedom of the individual. Prosperity comes through free markets and free trade. Happily, China has embraced the values of economic liberalism to a considerable extent, but they are not Chinese values. Rather they are long-time Western values, and if the US and its allies don’t defend them they might not endure.

Confusion over Japan is related to this point. You can’t talk of the US and China as the two ‘global powers’ and relegate Japan to ‘regional power’. It is not just that in a decade or two the labels might have to be changed, but right now the White Paper’s assessment of power undervalues democracy and free markets in the making of stability.

True, the entire White Paper assumes the centrality of a US-led equilibrium to Australia’s security and prosperity. But it’s content with a vague hope to ‘develop the security structures on our region to help ensure cooperation…’. Lame references to ‘rules of conduct’ and a ‘rules-based global order’ (which doesn’t exist) send no message to Beijing that Australia opposes the weakening of the existing equilibrium in the Asia Pacific. Beijing respects strength more than Western-derived rules of conduct.

Ross Terrill of Harvard’s Centre for Chinese Studies is a visiting international senior fellow at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Julia Gillard.

Obama’s mindset

Where's Obama's foreign policy mind at?What lies ahead for US policies affecting Australia? Paradoxically, the greatest doubt about America’s strength in the world comes from within the US itself. Obama’s second term foreign policy will probably resemble his 2008 campaign and the early part of his first term. In other words, Obama will mainly focus on domestic policy. His vision as a student, law scholar and politician in Chicago was about transforming America, not about the world. He believes the American people favour that priority. His first term frustrations in foreign policy will hardly change his view. In four years, Obama soothed international perceptions of the US in some international quarters and entered no major wars. Give him credit for that. But he transformed no world hotspots. A handicap is his worldview that sidesteps the notion of clashes of interest among nations, and encourages a multipolar world in which Washington talks with everybody about whatever, hoping that if big powers disarm, rogue states will be inspired to follow. This view is decidedly not shared by Beijing, the major world capital of most concern to many Australians and most Americans. Moreover, Sudan, Iran, North Korea and others have been slow to heed Obama’s call to rectitude. Yet he’s extremely unlikely to return to Bush’s big stick approach and pro-democracy sermons. Read more

Obama is content to sit at the table of world politics, listen to all, and pluck harmony (he hopes) from a cacophony of voices; a light American footprint will be available but only a last resort. China, though authoritarian, seems more realistic and focused on its goals, and the difference between the two powers’ mindsets should worry Canberra. Obama wants to be universally liked, but that never happens with a US president. He seeks multilateral solutions in a world that seldom delivers them. His idealism ebbs into wishful thinking. Accordingly, one of his aide’s characterised his style as ‘leading from behind’.

Australian social democrats rightly sense a fellow feeling with Obama. In his multilateral rationality he resembles Whitlam and other Labor figures. Grand gestures are irresistible to such leaders; Whitlam freed New Guinea, recognised an unwitting North Korea, wanted to start a government newspaper and carved up the pie as if the Australian purse was limitless. Obama has said his cause is to bring the Kingdom of God on earth, lower the sea levels, and ‘spread the wealth around’. His second inaugural speech emphasised gay rights and climate change more than national security. Only the pressure of events is likely to constrain Obama to resolutely safeguard sea lanes and free trade, protect integrity of the Internet and buoy Washington’s true friends.

Ross Terrill of Harvard’s Centre for Chinese Studies is a visiting international senior fellow at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user The White House.

The United States’ persistent hope for China

Arrival of Air Force One in Peking, 02/21/1972Based on what they read in the national press or hear the talking heads on TV say, Australians could be forgiven for thinking that the Americans and Chinese are totally at loggerheads. We keep getting told at Australia has to choose between the two. And, to be fair, there are China Hawks in Washington who seem to regard the Chinese with the deepest suspicion, and China’s state controlled press frequently invokes American efforts to thwart Chinese interests. In fact, the situation is far more nuanced than those views would tend to suggest. Seen over a very long period, there is an American view of China that is much more sympathetic, and there is no shortage of American thinkers rooting for a Chinese success story in the twenty-first century.

Americans have a resilient hope in China, and they feel a special rapport with the Chinese. The origins of this trait lie in Christian missionaries being the first Americans to live in China, reinforced in the period of the Open Door Notes, when Americans had superior motives, they believed, in upholding Chinese sovereignty in the face of European colonialism. Canberra’s first-ever diplomat based in China, Keith Waller saw the syndrome in Chongqing during World War II: ‘There was a romantic side to Roosevelt’s attitude to the Chinese stemming, I suppose, from the renunciation of the Boxer indemnity.’ Waller’s skeptical Australian eye watched the missionaries in Chongqing: ‘They used to send [to mission headquarters in New York] regular and pretty glowing reports suggesting that with a little more effort the great nation of China would become Christian… this was undoubtedly a major factor in the American tenderness towards China.’

The persistent hope is indeed remarkable. The 1898–1901 Boxer Rebellion shot down US hopes for a cosmopolitan China; a realisation dawned that China, after all, was different from the US Tiananmen 1989 was even worse than the Boxers, this time the villain was not Chinese culture, but Leninist dictatorship. Yet neither upheaval nor others in between cancelled American’s hope toward the Chinese. Read more

Fuelling the hope is unconscious alignment of American values with universal values, allowing Americans to believe China needs what the US offers. It needed the gospel preached by American Protestant missionaries from the early 19th century. It needed American educational expertise and facilities from the late 19th century to advance its lagging society. Certainly Chiang and Mao needed US help to beat back Japan’s invasion in the 1930s and 1940s. Chiang needed a reluctant US to help against Mao’s assault in the late 1940s. Tibet, an unwilling part of the PRC, felt it needed the US to help protect its religion and culture from Beijing. Endangered by the Soviet Union in the 1970s, China needed the USA as a balance. Departing from Maoism during the 1980s, the Chinese needed American capital, know-how, and markets.

Throughout this span of history, the American side was the masterful player, the presumed source for China’s requirements. The US was mostly willing and able to help. Has the need and capacity abated? Considerably. But atavistically it exists in diffused form. Today American technology, sports, and popular culture are lapped up by Chinese. Steve Jobs, Lebron James, and Lady Gaga are ‘needed’ by young urban Chinese. If the ‘special rapport’ is substantially in the American imagination, an indirect ‘rapport’ does come from the unwitting American impact on Chinese individuals. Seldom, however, does all this affect Beijing’s policy toward the US.

In truth American feelings about China are not only a matter of ‘soft power,’ but a function of geopolitics. A great naval and air power, the US also possesses a huge landmass and looks with fascination at distant China, the continental centrepiece of Asia. For Americans the Pacific Ocean affords China an aura and sometimes an illusion. Neither is shared by Japanese, Russians and others much closer, who act and react toward China but seldom dream about it.

Australians generally resist this American psychology. On leaving Washington in February 1972, Nixon compared his visit to China with his countrymen’s voyage into space. At a refueling stop in Guam he said to the crowd: ‘Join me in this prayer, that with this trip to China a new day may begin for the whole world.’ No such religious or cosmic imagery on China policy came from Whitlam when I accompanied him to Beijing in 1971, or has come from any Australian leader (unless it be Hawke) since. Nor, for multiple reasons is Australia likely to demonise China as occasionally has happened with the US.

Ross Terrill of Harvard’s Centre for Chinese Studies is a visiting international senior fellow at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user The US National Archives.