Analysing the China choice
24 Jul 2014|

Choices ...

The recent posts by Peter Jennings and Hugh White outline an interesting set of thoughts about Australia’s strategic policy options in a transformational Asia.

If I can summarise the argument bluntly, Peter says we don’t need to choose between the US and China, nor even between Japan and China—explicitly making the case that ‘countries in the Asia Pacific stickily persist in cooperating with each other’, and implicitly making the argument that zero-sum strategic competitions come along a lot less frequently than many people suppose. Just as well too, says Peter, since the choice Hugh outlines is one between ‘subordination or incineration’.

Hugh agrees that the objective of Australian policy should be to avoid having to choose between the US and China. But being able to do that, he says, turns critically upon how well the US and China get on with each other: ‘the worse they get on, the starker the choice we’ll face between them’. Since Hugh is a self-confessed pessimist, he doesn’t expect the two great powers to get along well. So he does think we face a looming—stark—choice between great powers. Hugh’s answer is greater accommodation of China: ‘the more firmly we resist any accommodation of China’s ambitions, the faster strategic rivalry will escalate’.

The argument between Peter and Hugh is rather more subtle than it appears at first glance, but I think it turns upon one important difference: Hugh wants Australia ‘to promote a new power-sharing order in Asia’, where I get the sense that Peter would like Australia to promote a new responsibility-sharing order in Asia. Between the two competing principles, I’m attracted to the notion of responsibility-sharing. If China’s ambitions don’t include a role as something like a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the regional order (yes, I know Robert Zoellick’s term is unfashionable these days, but it captures the right metric), why should we accommodate it?

Power is neither a good thing nor a bad thing in international relations—it’s what it’s used for that matters. In that sense, power’s like war and intelligence operations—you judge it by its political objectives rather than standing in slack-jawed admiration of power in its own right. That’s the way we’ve always judged other powers: it explains why we think now that concluding ‘peace in our time’ with Hitler was wrong, and also why we thought the Soviet Union had to be contained, even if it couldn’t easily be fought in a nuclear age.

So, the real determinant of whether we have to make a choice between the US and China isn’t how well they get on with each other. It’s ‘what does China see as its role in the world?’ The problem is that question doesn’t get a single answer, even in Beijing. Chinese grand strategy is a mish-mash of: its earlier expectations of what it meant to be a great power; a sense of entitlement now China has escaped the century of humiliations; a great sense of economic interconnectedness to the outside world; and a history of fractious relations with its neighbours.

That means Beijing likes some parts of the current regional order but dislikes others. It likes maritime security and safe sealanes so it can trade. It likes regional stability so it can concentrate on development. It accepts that US alliances help ‘tether’ Washington’s regional allies, though it’s becoming a bit more hesitant about that one. It dislikes foreign barbarians encroaching on Chinese civilisation. It resents that it’s a great power with unsettled territorial claims. It dislikes an Asian security order organised in Washington.

Hugh says that accommodation doesn’t mean giving Beijing everything it wants. That’s true. But what do we do when push comes to shove on something it wants but we don’t want? At some point, even in Hugh’s universe, the rubric of ‘choice’ cuts both ways. And choosing to resist China in a regional order we’ve designed to accommodate it might involve a set of strategic risks that we’d be unwilling to run on the day: by necessity, there’d be a set of salami-slice calculations in which the running of great risks for small gains could always be reasoned away.

Let’s go back to the nub of the problem: what does Australia want in Asia? I think the answer is relatively simple: it wants a stable, liberal, prosperous regional order. We can accommodate a China that wants that too. But power-sharing for its own sake doesn’t strike me as a recipe for strategic happiness. And arguing in Washington for a course that dilutes US influence in order to fashion a workable G2 with China means arguing for a smaller role for the one great power that’s actually built a stable, liberal, prosperous order in Asia. I’m not in favour of our doing that.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Daniel Lee.