Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 14:58 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 14:58 | SYDNEY

China and the Great Asia Project III: Four bets on China to lose


Graeme Dobell

19 November 2010 11:00

Australia is starting to feel the tensions in the 'great duality' of its dealings with China and the United States. The duality line is from John Howard, and is an interesting entry in the important debate that Hugh White has so excellently provoked (or should that be exploded').

Without a hint of irony, Howard’s review of his government boasts of the 'great duality in our foreign policy'. This duality, as the former Prime Minister defines it, is Australia's ability to do two things at the same time — draw closer to China and the US simultaneously. It is most definitely not duality in the sense of dissembling, deception or conflicting emotions. 

The Australian polity is feeling some strains as it peers ahead and tries to divine China's future. The great duality may yet become a great–something–else.

Howard's contribution is to make four big predictions that he scatters through his memoirs:

  1. Australia would join the US in a war against China
  2. The Communist Party's sole hold on power will crumble
  3. The US will beat China
  4. India will beat China

Howard doesn’t like the word 'war'. War is what he is talking about, but he prefers less confronting terms. As previously noted, he avoids the 'w' word in talking about the Iraq.

In the China case, the key word becomes 'showdown':

Whilst I always knew that come a showdown between China and the US, Australia would align itself with the US, it was overwhelmingly in our interests to prevent any such occurrence in the future.

The 'always' comment is about a war over Taiwan. As with Iraq, so with China. In the Howard universe, if the US goes to war so does Australia. Many others in Canberra share this assumption. That is why Hugh White stirred so many possums by talking about Australia's other options beyond automatically aligning with the US against China.

The Howard statement of Australia's alliance commitment is the unspoken piece in one of the defining foreign policy speeches of the Howard era. In his 2005 Lowy Institute speech on Australia in the World, Howard gave this judgement on the chance of war between the US and China:

It would be a mistake to embrace an overly pessimistic view of this relationship, pointing to unavoidable conflict. Australia does not believe that there is anything inevitable about escalating strategic competition between China and the US.

Sitting in the audience that night, I remember thinking that Howard could deliver the scariest thought in a sort of verbal monochrome. Not least, because when Howard uses a phrase that pivots on the negative, you must pay as much attention to what he denies as what he affirms.

Not much in life is inevitable. Leaving aside inevitability, what was the likelihood of just such a showdown'  

If the less than inevitable did come to pass, as Howard now argues, Australia would always be in the fight with the US. That puts us in some exclusive company. Japan would join, but even the contribution of South Korea might be questionable. Not to worry, though, because if we hold our breaths for a couple of decades, the Chinese Communist Party will lose its grip.

Howard bets on inevitable change in China, but gives the wager a couple of decades to arrive:

It has long been my view that eventually there will be a collision within China between her economic liberalism and her political authoritarianism. China's political system will undergo change, but such a change is unlikely for decades.

The beauty of long–term bets is that you're often not around to pay out. And the prediction that both the US and India will beat China is a classic bit of long–termism.

It comes on the final page of Howard's book as he offers reflections on what lies ahead of Australia and places his biggest bet on the shape of the 21st century:

We should keep our faith in the efficacy of liberal democracy. The US will remain the most powerful nation in the world for many reasons, not least of which is that she is a conspicuous exemplar of liberal democracy. Just as predictions 20 to 30 years ago that Japan would surpass America proved wrong, so it will be proven the case with claims that China will outpace the US. The growth of China has been good for China and good for the world, not least Australia, but she has challenges of demography and limitations of property rights which bulk as ever-larger problems in the future. China will grow old before she grows rich. Beyond this lies the ultimate denouement, between her economic liberalism and political authoritarianism. India carries many burdens, including some poisonous religious rivalries, but does not face the frightening demographic future of China. Being the largest democracy in the world, India does not face a Chinese-style denouement. By the end of the century, India could well be more powerful economically and politically than China.

So China isn't going to triumph. All we have to do is make it to 2100. Bet on it.

Photo by Flickr user Experience Reality, used under a Creative Commons licence.