Who’s afraid of China?
13 Mar 2013|

Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping take part in an official welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, China, Aug.18, 2011. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)Recent media coverage of the Senkaku/Diaoyu stand-off has painted the picture of a powder-keg so dangerous it could force Australia to make stark Cold War-style choices; either helping to stare down or else bending over backwards to a rising China.

To paraphrase one strand of that deeply pessimistic commentary, President Obama, and by extension Australia as a close ally, must resist China’s muscling-up to Japan. Any appeasement could signal Washington’s bluffing on its commitments to North Asia and realignment. That might, in turn, encourage Beijing to ‘nibble further at Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea’ (PDF).

An alternative, equally gloomy, view urges us to encourage Washington to offer China up some more shared living space, rather than go along with a pivot that can really only be about ‘containing any challenge to US primacy’. The pivot, this argument goes, could actually encourage China to break-out and grab its own sphere of influence—sucking Australia into an unwanted war.

Both interpretations reflect a deep vein of anxiety, tapped by recent over-flights, radar lock-ons, and blustering in the East China Sea, and driven by historical analogies about great power birth pangs in the 20th century normally treated with more qualifiers and scepticism. Such concerns are as much about China’s continuing weaknesses as its growing strength—and focus on where the Communist Party and/or PLA might direct nationalistic and economic energies if things turn sour.

Well, history does seem to suggest that we can’t entirely count on even very deep economic enmeshment, or the availability of weapons of mass destruction, to guarantee continuing peace. And there’s always scope for miscalculation when great powers quarrel. But while the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute certainly warrants deep concern, I’d argue that the evidence suggests stabilising and mitigating factors actually outweigh destabilising ones.

What’s the basis for this relatively upbeat assessment? For a start, the US and China have demonstrated considerable care and some success managing an inevitably mixed cooperative and competitive relationship over four decades. Signs of attentiveness range from recent reciprocal congratulatory calls following each Presidents’ accession, to the generally careful calibration of diplomatic messaging over sensitive issues—for instance, the absence of security issues in the official statement issued during Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the US in February. (Tokyo probably wouldn’t welcome the comparison but Washington also has long experience preserving strategic ambiguity in its security guarantee to Taiwan)

The two countries have also shown they can resolve periodic crises fairly pragmatically, or at least keep communication channels open, whether they’re over irritants (such as defections and human rights issues), longstanding points of economic friction or even quite acute events, such as the April 2001 EP-3 Incident over Hainan Island, which need reliable national command and control structures and protocols.

Although China–Japan ties obviously contain greater historical animosity—as evident in occasional incendiary statements and acts, and further complicated by proximity and some old tussles—most signs are that they too are committed to managing this relationship with care. The most reassuring point to make here, perhaps, is that Mr Abe the current Prime Minister is signalling slightly different messages to Mr Abe the erstwhile Opposition Leader. For instance, he seems to have stepped back, since January, from his Four Diamond proposal, with its echoes of the unsuccessful 2007 Quadrilateral (US, Japan, India, Australia) Initiative—which was certainly seen in Beijing as a containment strategy.

And structurally speaking, one needn’t subscribe to ‘too-much-to-lose’ and ‘war is unthinkable’ theories (nor accept that China necessarily plays the long game it’s often credited with) to recognise its lack of strong or reliable friends. Being outnumbered and outspent by the rich democracies probably further constrains any adventurism. While we can’t utterly rule out China, the rational actor, stumbling into an escalation it would find hard to control, it won’t be looking for a conflagration it would lose.

This more positive reading of the likely trajectory of US–Chinese–Japanese relations doesn’t mean we shouldn’t contemplate alternative, harder or softer-edged, policy settings—after all, we’re talking about avoiding WWIII here. But as she prepares to visit China I’d guess Prime Minister Gillard will assess that, for now, global circumstances warrant continuity in approaches just reaffirmed in the Asian Century White Paper and National Security Policy. She might also consider US suggestions that we could be a bit bolder on the timing and co-funding of US Marine Corp deployments to Darwin.

These approaches essentially stick with the responsible stakeholder model, that seeks to productively engage China without either confronting or particularly accommodating its strategic ambitions. While they may not have the intellectual appeal of conceptually sparkling alternative frameworks, we’re probably actually quite well served by the current messy combination of defence self-reliance, alliance, engagement, hedging, balancing and other strategies, which—above all—keep our options open.

A harder or softer edged approach might address some dangerous pressures but could create unforeseen new pressures of its own. It would close off some possibilities too—perhaps even the prospect that China might mellow and discover a more authentic soft power over time as its assertive forays repeatedly spook potential clients into shifting closer to the US. Although time is historically on China’s side, preserving room to manoeuvre keeps it on our side too.

Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of The White House.