Colin on Hugh White and The China Choice

ImagePRESIDENT’S COLUMN: Hugh White’s new book The China Choice has certainly reinvigorated the foreign policy debate, as evidenced by the weekend newspapers, particularly The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald.

As Paul Kelly argued on Australian Agenda – the excellent Sunday morning Sky News program that now knocks socks off ABC’s tired Insiders format – the debate both within the Government and the Coalition over our triangular position with China and the United States will now hot up.

It is already fairly heated, but what I find interesting is that Professor White seems to have shifted his ground. All last year, in articles and at events like the Sydney Writers” Festival, Hugh was arguing that Australia at some time in the near future would have to choose between its principal strategic ally, the United States, and China, our main trading partner. Many believed this; I found this argument unconvincing.

However,in The China Choice, the former deputy secretary of the Dept of Defence and Hawke aide, appears to be be presenting the China choice with a subtle difference. I would not want to oversimplify cogent arguments in a long manuscript, but what he is saying now is that the Gillard government is already making the wrong choice – by so strongly embracing the United States.

The choice now that has to be made, Professor White argues, is one that must be taken by the United States. Washington must pull back from any notion of confrontation with China, and recognise fully the rise of the world’s most populous country, and accept that it can no longer expect and enjoy supremacy in the Asia Pacific region. And Australia should nudge the US in that direction.

There is a lot of support in Australia for this argument, most optically( to use a word that has become fashionable among the chattering classes) by Paul Keating. But it is not new. The strong case for a Pax Pacifica was cogently argued by Kevin Rudd, in a speech to the Asia Society in New York, and also to Chatham House in London, both events that were ignored by the same media that spruik White’s book.

The fundamental problem with Hugh’s argument is that Washington is not yet ready to treat China as an equal, or to surrender its superpower status. That day may come, but it is not here yet. It certainly will not arrive before the November presidential election, but, assuming Obama wins, as seems likely, there may be a shift, but don’t count on it. What won’t happen is a return to the Chaney-Rumsfeld legacy.

The other problem with this entire issue is that too many of the actors make too many assumptions, some of them questionable.

There is the assumption in some circles that the United States is in decline. That is questionable, to say the least. It is still the world leader in technology. Its navy and air force has no peer. It has made major strides in energy provision and energy technology. It has assets in space, and is commercializing them. And it is innovative, which cannot be said about Australia. Its economy is also still growing, unlike that in some G8 countries.

Another assumption made by some is that the US has somehow mishandled its relations with China. Those who believe this pay too much attention to the rhetoric and media hype. Relations between Washington and Beijing have been fairly stable for many years. Both countries are dependent on each other. President Barack Obama and secretary Clinton have been straightforward with China, and vice versa. Such differences that exist are well aired and understood.

One of those differences, albeit minor, is over the US use of Darwin as a place to locate a small number of marines. This has been blown up out of all proportion. This is no threat to China, as some make out, any more than the building of billion dollar ports by China in Pakistan and Burma is a threat to Australia.

Both the United States and China have a deep common interest in ensuring the trade routes in the Indian Ocean remain open and free from interference. The Indian Ocean is by far the most important space on earth for trade in energy and resources.

Another assumption – that China’s growth will continue unimpeded – has already been disproved, as those holding shares in BHP Billiton and other resources companies know to their cost. They have paid the price for believing those Australian stock market promoters that were ramping the stocks. China’s growth has been slowing, and may slow further, as it grapples with a host of internal problems.

Here both China and the US have something else in common. Both are anxious about their internal problems. In the US, it is debt – and hobs. In China, a country that has lifted half a billion people out of poverty, it is managing expectations that this should continue, by ensuring a sustainable growth path. China would not be where it is today without American and European buyers, and it needs this to continue.

Australia is a participant in all this, but only one of many nations with a strong vested interest in an enduring Sino-US relationship. We can have endless and interesting debates over Hugh White’s book,but we should not get above ourselves. At the same time we can’t vacillate – that will make us look weaker than we really are.(The optics again).

Australia’s interest lie in an enduring China-US relationship, an ere of peace and stability to our north, and a very close watch on what happens in the Indian Ocean, especially at a time when rising tensions from the Middle East threaten its trade routes. These are the messages we should be sending.

Colin Chapman is president of the AIIA in New South Wales. The AIIA will stage a day long forum on Australia in the Asian Century at Parliament House in Macquarie St, Sydney on Friday August 24. An open public forum will be recorded by ABC Radio Australia at its Ultimo studios at 7pm on Thursday August 23. Attendance is free and all are welcome. Please see the AIIA web site for details.

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