The Anglosphere and the China Choice
22 Jul 2013| and

What might an alternative world order look like? Image: Shanghai Pudong

Like many of our readers, I’ve been following the recent discussion of the nature of the Anglosphere with interest. It’s been a lively exchange—and a sometimes wry one—and it sheds some light on aspects of our strategic culture that we usually take for granted. But ultimately I think we’ve been dancing around the key issue while having fun with definitions.

Whether ‘Anglosphere’ is a good word for the established world order is a subsidiary issue which we can leave for another time. The real question is what is happening to the world order, whether we’re likely to see a significant challenge to it in the foreseeable future and what our response should be if there is.

There’s no doubt from the exchange so far that all of the contributors agree that there are plenty of reasons for Australia to value the current world order. After all, it’s left us sitting fat and happy at the top of the heap. As inheritors of the global trading and financial system that’s largely an Anglo-American construct, we’ve successfully traded our way to prosperity. And along the way we’ve learned to love the military doctrine that goes along with it; God bless those Sea Lines of Communication.

There’s no question that we’d like things to stay the same—or as close to it as possible. And for as long as the cost of keeping the status quo is low, I think our major protagonists in Hugh White and Peter Jennings would be in firm agreement that it’s a strategy worth pursuing. The crux of the argument—and where I think they part company—is what happens when the cost becomes higher. Peter argues that he sees little evidence of that:

A China that pluralises, abides by international law, trades freely and respects human rights will be, to use Hugh’s term, a China that’s agreeably ‘just like us’. There are many indicators that China is precisely on this journey and few to suggest that it rejects the international order.

Hugh, I think, is less sanguine, and thinks that there’s a real prospect that China will attempt to rewrite the world order in a way that goes beyond an easily accommodated ‘Singaporisation’ of the Anglo-American order.

I put these thoughts to Hugh, and this was his emailed response:

After the Cold War it seemed to many—though not to me—that the world order was now accepted by all the big players, so it would last for ever; hence ‘the end of history’. Then some folk thought that al Qaeda was the biggest or only challenge it faced. Now it’s becoming clearer to more people that China doesn’t accept it, and has the power to contest it if it wants to. But the scale of China’s challenge is still not agreed. Indeed the big division in the debate, including in our Anglosphere debate is between those who take China’s challenge to the status quo seriously, and those who think it can be ignored or faced down at low cost.

To those who think it isn’t to be taken too seriously—which I think includes Peter and many others, including the Government and the Opposition, and most Americans—unflinching defence of the status quo is a no brainer.

For those of us who do take it seriously—and I do—the response is much more complex. Do we cave in, fight back or a bit of both? And the answer isn’t black and white, but grey all over. It isn’t so much do we fight back or cave in, but how much change do we accept, and what do we refuse to compromise on? And that depends on the costs and risks of compromise on different issues versus the costs and risks of resistance on those issues. These are the vital questions to those who take China’s challenge seriously, but to those who don’t, the calculus is much easier.

So first we need to debate whether the World Order (or Anglosphere if we prefer) really does face a serious challenge or not. Then, if we decide it does, we have to debate how to respond.

So yes, this idea is worth exploring—which is why I’ve written a book about it. Because this is precisely what The China Choice is all about.

Andrew Davies is the senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at ANU and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Mikel.