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China Choice: The missing question

This post is part of the Hugh White's 'The China Choice' debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

9 August 2012 10:44

This post is part of the Hugh White's 'The China Choice' debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Dr John Blaxland is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

Hugh White's recently released book, The China Choice, is an enjoyable read, capturing much of what he has blogged about on The Interpreter over the last couple of years in relation to the US and China and taking into account a number of the comments posted in response. It goes to show that blogging is a good proving ground for a work like this!

Hugh's argument focuses on what he sees as the need for an American accommodation over the rise of China, particularly in the Western Pacific. And in many ways the argument is compelling. But early on in the book he admits that senior Americans, including Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, have begun making overtures along the lines he advocates. This suggests his central thesis is no longer as controversial as it once would have appeared. Most would agree that this is an encouraging sign.

Hugh challenges the strategic utility of the Air-Sea Battle concept espoused recently as a military counterpoint to China's expanding military capabilities. Yet Air-Sea Battle is in effect a rebadged version of a long held American plan for the defence of Taiwan, should it ever come to that. Arguably this is not that contentious and the Chinese know it. Further, Hugh criticises the plan, but doesn't offer a viable alternative. Arguably, the maintenance of robust plans along these lines are what is needed to give the US leverage to hold the very dialogue with China that Hugh rightly encourages. As Teddy Roosevelt would say, 'speak softly but carry a big stick'.

At times I also wondered whether the audience was intended to be American or Australian, particularly given the frequent reference to inclusive terms like 'we' and 'us' alternating with outsider references to 'the Americans'. It reads some of the time like it's intended for Americans to read, but then again, perhaps the main audience is Australian.

Yet perhaps the most striking omission from the book is the question of where he thinks Australia should stand in relation to this grand choice. We know that Hugh has tended to be sceptical about increased US engagement with Australia, most notably saying 'no thanks' to the heightened Marine presence in Darwin. Yet arguably this is the most important question arising from his thesis for an Australian audience.

I have argued elsewhere that the question boils down to this: in seeking to influence both the Americans and Chinese in their deliberations over the China Choice, should Australia shun or embrace the US? In other words, should Australia accommodate China at the expense of its US ties?

I would argue that, given our investment in the relationship, and the long, deep, and enduring intelligence and security ties (let alone the cultural predispositions) between Australia and the US, our best hope to exert any influence over the Choice is to further embrace rather than shun our US ally.

There are three issues behind this argument. First, Australia can best encourage China to appreciate the enduring significance of US power in maintaining the rules-based global order we have all come to rely upon if Australia makes it clear that it remains strongly committed to supporting that order. To say otherwise would be to embolden those in China with more belligerent tendencies and undermine the resolve of the Americans to continue seeking to play a constructive and restrained role in the numerous outstanding regional disputes.

Second, Australia can best encourage an American accommodation with China by maintaining the confidence and access to speak frankly, openly and helpfully to friends in Washington. Prevaricating will get us nowhere.

Third, a clear stand in support of the US alliance helps make clear to China that Australia sees support for the US alliance as a legitimate, reasonable and constructive contribution to that order. Indeed, this view is shared by many of Australia's security partners across East and Southeast Asia. That isn't about to change any time soon.

Photo by Flickr user LondonAnnie.