ASPI’s decades: Riding China and the US

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

Dealing with China and the United States is a two-horse challenge.

One of the great Oz realists, Owen Harries, captured the dilemma in typical vivid fashion at ASPI’s 2006 Global Forces conference: ‘We’re going to have to learn to ride two horses simultaneously, which is not the most comfortable of feats. We’re going to have to cultivate a greater degree of complexity and ambiguity than we have in the past.’

The rough ride has arrived.

Xi Jinping pushed in the South China Sea. China grew louder and sharper. When Donald Trump took power, the US gyrated. The US always has options about its role in the Indo-Pacific, and Trump offered a vision that was isolationist and ‘America first’.

Canberra’s dealings with Beijing became icy. Australia’s number one trading partner delivered trade punishment.

The China–US ride prompted recurring intellectual stoushes between ASPI’s first executive director, Hugh White, and the institute’s third executive director, Peter Jennings. ‘We’ve been talking about these things for decades,’ White observed in one of his microphone jousts with Jennings.

The two fronted the lectern for a debate in 2013 over the choice White offered in his book The China choice: why America should share power. Then they sat down in front of the ASPI camera again in 2014 for a return bout.

A multi-author discussion on The Strategist became an ASPI paper, To choose or not to choose: how to deal with China’s growing power and influence.

White defined his key difference with Jennings as a view about the future of the regional order:

I think the order is going to change—indeed, is already changing. It’s simple. Asia has been stable since 1972 because China has accepted US primacy as the foundation of the Asian order. China did so because it believed it was too weak to contest it effectively. Now China believes it’s strong enough to contest US primacy, and it’s doing so.

The choice, White wrote, was between accommodating China or confronting it as a rival. The more firmly China’s ambitions were resisted, ‘the faster strategic rivalry will escalate’.

Peter Jennings’s attack was that in the Asia–Pacific the Hugh White road was the road not taken, because the fork on that road was either subordination or incineration:

[N]owhere in the civilised world is the China Choice logic gaining traction. Countries in the Asia–Pacific stickily persist in cooperating with each other; in wanting the US to remain engaged; in building defence capabilities and otherwise refusing to sacrifice their own interests to give China more breathing space.

Dealing with China ‘brings into play American idealism and Australian pragmatism,’ Ross Terrill wrote in Facing the dragon. Between the two extremes of Beijing and Washington seeing each other as a ‘threat’ and a China–US condominium, Terrill hoped for a peaceful competition that offered Asia breathing room:

While some Australians may view China as the new America to lead the Asia–Pacific, China has a less dramatic view of Australia. We’re useful but not indispensable to Beijing, and less politically important to it than China is to us. Shared experiences haven’t brought us to this moment of economic partnership, and the Chinese owe us no guiding loyalty.

China would be ‘Australia’s greatest foreign policy challenge during the 21st century,’ David Hale declared in 2014 in China’s new dream. He described a Canberra nightmare if America’s fiscal problems forced it to slash defence spending and withdraw from the East Asian region:

In such a scenario, Australia would cease to have a great-power ally and be more vulnerable to foreign aggression than at any time since 1942. The only Asian country with the long-term potential to challenge Chinese hegemony is India. Australia should therefore hedge its bets with the US and China by pursuing better relations with New Delhi.

Surveying ANZUS and alliance politics in Southeast Asia under President Trump, William Tow observed that the greatest impediment to alliance credibility was Washington’s tendency to oscillate between commitment and alliance detachment, between internationalism and neo-isolationism. The true test of the Trump administration’s ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ policy, Tow wrote, would be to overcome ASEAN and Australian concerns that Washington was easily distracted.

The idea of ‘Chimerica’—the joining of China and America—had ended, John Lee pronounced in 2019. Chimerica had rested on a global economic consensus that had passed. Instead, Lee described the rise of US–China technological contest and strategic hypercompetition.

A long period of Chinese economic and trade malpractices had distorting effects on the global economic system, Lee wrote, and US dissatisfaction was irreversible:

The deepening tension isn’t a transient phase in US–China relations. China has long treated America as a comprehensive rival. The US has finally accepted that reality, and that pessimistic conversion is deep and enduring. The administration’s turn against China is perhaps the only policy of Trump’s that the Democrats overwhelmingly support.

US voices for the containment of China were getting louder, Peter Varghese told a 2019 ASPI conference, and dangers loomed. The former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said there was nothing new about US determination to hang on to strategic primacy. What was new was the call to block or thwart China, Varghese said:

Containing China is a policy dead end. China is too enmeshed in the international system and too important to our region to be contained. And the notion that global technology supply chains can be divided into a China-led system and a US-led system is both economic and geopolitical folly.

The US is right to call China to account. But it would be a mistake for the US to cling to primacy by thwarting China. Those of us who value US leadership want the US to retain it by lifting its game, not spoiling China’s.

China’s rise needs to be managed not frustrated. It needs to be balanced not contained. Constructing that balance and anchoring it in a new strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific is the big challenge of our time.

Taiwan had returned as a critical security question for Australia, Mark Harrison wrote—an issue framed by the US alliance and a longstanding risk calculus for Australia–China relations. Australia’s thinking rested on pragmatism and realism, he said, but Beijing’s treatment of Taiwan challenged Australia’s medium- and long-term interests.

The Chinese trade punishment that began in 2020 cut the value of Australian trade with China for almost all industries by 40% (only China’s huge appetite for iron ore sustained the trade figures). Australia’s ambassador to Beijing, Graham Fletcher, said that China ‘had been exposed as quite unreliable as a trading partner and even vindictive’.

The idea of Australia having a ‘strategic partnership’ with China faded.

Canberra had accepted Beijing’s ‘strategic partnership’ language during the Gillard Labor government in return for an annual summit. The foreign minister who did the deal in 2013, Bob Carr, wrote that ‘strategic partnership’ was ‘the shorthand description of what they want from us, and what we will agree to in order to get them to give us guaranteed annual leaders’ meetings’.

In February 2021, Prime Minister Scott Morrison bid adieu to strategic partnership:

China’s outlook and the nature of China’s external engagement, both in our region and globally, has changed since our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership was formed and going further back than that, certainly in the decades that have led up till now. We cannot pretend that things are as they were. The world has changed.

Today, Beijing doesn’t take phone calls from Australia’s leaders.

Peter Jennings offered a set of conclusions about the icy relationship:

  • We’re going to be on this roller-coaster ride for years: ‘National positions are hardening. Neither Beijing nor Canberra will back down and the prospects for “negotiation” are zero given China’s “wolf warrior” mania.’
  • The Morrison government looked increasingly confident in its stance: ‘The language used about relations with China is careful but is becoming clearer and more definitive. There is something to be said for knowing when your back is hard up against a strategic wall.’
  • Shrill and threatening rhetoric from China’s embassy in Canberra and from the foreign ministry in Beijing was counterproductive: ‘Beijing’s usual Australian support base has largely gone to ground and public opinion has massively swung against the People’s Republic.’
  • Beyond the bilateral struggle with China, a positive international agenda beckoned for Australia: ‘[O]ur ability to draw on strong alliances and deep friendships with like-minded democracies is the reason that we will prevail against Beijing.’

Scott Morrison’s observation about Australia–China relations was equally true for the US and China: ‘We cannot pretend that things are as they were. The world has changed.’

Drawn from the book on the institute’s first 20 years: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021.