Choosing not to choose
5 Aug 2014|


Hugh White writes ‘I don’t believe that Australia must make a choice between America and China’ and adds another perilous twist to his ‘China-Choice’ journey. Well, you could have fooled me! Hugh and I agree that the future great-power balance in the Asia-Pacific is critical to Australia’s interests, but it’s dismaying that there seems so little else about which we might find ourselves on the same bus. While this debate is enjoyable there’s surely a need at some point to quit the word-play and aim for a common understanding about what the correct policy settings should be for Australia and the great powers. In that spirit, I appreciate Hugh setting out as clearly as he can the differences between his thinking and mine. Here are my thoughts about the limitations of Hugh’s argument.

First, I can’t find an empirical basis for Hugh’s claim that a US–China clash is inevitable unless we accommodate Chinese aspirations for more power and influence. In The China Choice the closest Hugh comes to demonstrating the inevitability of a US–China confrontation is to refer to Thucydides: ‘the growth of the power of Athens and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable.’ Hugh says ‘we may wonder at the power of these beliefs and motives but we cannot dismiss them.’ True, but the remarkable thing about ‘inevitability’ is that it’s impervious to fact. The reality of US–China relations is that they are overwhelmingly positive. Hugh’s answer to that is simply to reassert that the logic of great power competition means that sooner or later hostility will break out unless America starts accommodating China. But when will that happen, 2015, 2020? There’s no compelling analogy between Athens–Sparta and Washington–Beijing.

My second disagreement with Hugh is over his handling of the idea of US ‘accommodation’ with China. What exactly does that mean? Should the US abandon its alliance with Japan or explicitly say that the Senkaku Islands are not covered by treaty commitments? Should the US concede that every claim within the nine-dashed line is China’s? If Laos is conceded to be in China’s orbit, is Thailand still behind some US red-line? The US has accommodated many core aspects of Chinese power, including supporting the one-China policy over Taiwan and tacitly accepting Beijing’s strategic influence over North Korea. So what, precisely, is the next accommodation the US should make? We never get to specifics on this point.

Viewed through a ‘China-Choice’ lens, any US or Australian activity in the region can be interpreted as a failure to accommodate China. US Marines in Darwin? Australia–Japan defence cooperation? According to Hugh those impinge on Chinese breathing space and shouldn’t happen. My view is that it’s dangerous to give Beijing the impression that its disapproval is reason enough for other countries to stop cooperating with each other. The Asia-Pacific is crowded territory; even a powerful China must allow breathing space for its neighbours. A further concern with Hugh’s approach is that it is frankly not up to Washington or Beijing to bargain away the interests of other countries in the region.

Third, on Japan Hugh’s view is clear and consistent and, from my perspective, wrong. He says:

… it’d be easier to negotiate an accommodation with China and create a stable new order in Asia if Japan becomes less strategically dependent on America. So I agree Japan needs to overhaul its strategic posture. But it will be harder to negotiate an accommodation with China if Japan’s new strategic posture involves building a coalition of allies designed specifically to resist any such accommodation.

Let’s be clear: a more independent Japan operating outside of an alliance with the US and not cooperating with others is, ultimately, a nuclear-armed Japan. Hugh can’t bring himself to quite say that in The China Choice, but is there any other possibility? If Thucydides is your guide, it’s just possible to conceive of a concert of Asia in which an isolated and nuclear-armed Japan is a good idea because that may be the basis for a robust deterrent relationship between Tokyo and Beijing. But that would be a much higher-stakes gamble than the current order. Doesn’t the same iron logic of competition apply to Japan–China relations as it does to US–China relations? At a minimum, Hugh’s concert would do much to dismantle the regional order that’s brought great-power peace to Asia for seventy years.

Finally, there’s the question of Australia and Japan. Hugh says: ‘Our support for Abe escalates regional rivalry’, but that’s the China-Choice lens once again distorting the perspective. There hasn’t been a squeak of serious Chinese concern to the announcement of closer Australia–Japan ties. On the contrary, Canberra–Beijing relations are pragmatic and positive. Sooner or later that troublesome fact must disturb the theoretical foundation of Hugh’s argument. It turns out that there’s a viable alternative to the dark world of the China Choice. It’s an alternative where the countries of the Asia-Pacific build their own broad web of security enhancing cooperative ties. Every country in the region benefits from that pragmatic and realisable approach.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Craig Sunter