Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:43 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:43 | SYDNEY

China: Cold War analogies won't wash


Raoul Heinrichs

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

28 August 2012 10:33

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

In the artificially narrow categories that have long demarcated the world of Australian strategy, Hugh White and Paul Dibb are sometimes lumped closely together. As former senior officials and now professors at ANU, each has played an influential role both in designing defence self-reliance for Australia and establishing that concept as the nominal, if not always actual, basis of Canberra's defence planning.

Yet their outlooks are different. And when it comes to the growth of Chinese power, the evolution of the region's security order and the optimal means by which to preserve Asia's long peace, the two are worlds apart.

In a recent rejoinder to White's new book, The China Choice, Dibb takes issue with the prescription for accommodating China through a power-sharing arrangement akin to the post-Napoleonic European Concert. He also dismisses much of the analysis from which that prescription derives. Where White sees the likely alternative as a combustible hegemonic rivalry, prone to escalatory pressures and crises and aggravated by different calculations of interest, risk and reward, Dibb is considerably more sanguine.

That optimism seems to stem from a particular reading of the Cold War: as an episode that was both more dangerous and intense than the emergent Sino-US rivalry, but which consistently defied worst-case predictions, whether because of luck or a mutual understanding about the costs of conflict, until it reached a largely peaceful conclusion. The lessons were clear and salutary: the US had held firm in the face of a challenger, even intensifying competition as it dropped the more conciliatory aspects of détente. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, buckled under the pressure.

Having cut his teeth in that heady era, and taking the Soviet Union and its military power as his reference point, Dibb thus sees little cause for concern today. Not in China's evolving capabilities, which he maintains are over-hyped, or in its interactions with the US, whose military preponderance and strategic commitments are, he suggests, as assured as ever. This isn't an uncommon view among Cold Warriors, for whom nothing is ever likely to look as scary as the Soviet Union.

But just as Cold War notions of 'containment' don't adequately capture  the dynamics of US strategy today, there are, I think, limits to how useful  the Cold War is as an analogue and predictor of the intensity of the emerging US-China rivalry. In particular, there are two reasons to be sceptical about Dibb's optimism.

First, as White himself has pointed out many times, in economic terms (which is what really matters) China is already more powerful relative to the US than the Soviet Union ever was. The Soviet Union might have been a strategic behemoth, but its military strength belied a defunct political and economic system and a limited population and industrial base that precluded its ability to keep up. While Soviet central planners channeled extraordinary resources into armoured divisions, submarines, and nuclear weapons, with an anaemic industrial base, all of this became less a source of strength than an unsustainable economic burden.

China's fundamentals are immeasurably better. With its massive population and virtually inexhaustible labour force, as well as policies to harness its productive capacity, China's unprecedented growth portends its emergence within a decade or so as the most powerful superpower in history. Beijing has also learned from the Soviet experience. Although it has been slower than the Soviet Union to translate wealth into military power, economic success has allowed China to sustain annual double digit increases in defence spending without imposing a crippling economic encumbrance on its society.

Second, and almost always overlooked when Cold War comparisons are made, China is a more dissatisfied power than was the Soviet Union. Why? Because it lacks the kind of 'strategic space' that the Soviet Union enjoyed from 1945 onwards, with all the attendant benefits in security and prestige this conferred. Of course, strategic dominance in Eastern Europe was not actively ceded to the Soviet Union. It was taken by force as the Red Army pushed Nazi Germany west across the continent, and so was a fait accompli by the time allied forces arrived in Berlin. But once established, it was respected and accommodated by the West as an inviolable buffer and Soviet sphere of influence.

China has no equivalent, except for North Korea. Even the maritime boundary that separates Beijing from its main rivals is subject to American military intrusion as well as war planning that aims to deny China the capacity to contest, much less control, the waters along its direct maritime periphery.

Taiwan lies just off the east coast, a permanent reminder of Chinese weakness, and Japan not far beyond that. To the south, Vietnam and the Philippines are actively contesting China's maritime claims, enlisting ASEAN and the US to help ratchet up the pressure on Beijing. Further south still, Australia has eagerly embraced a more confrontational form of US hegemony, symbolised for now by the deployment of US Marines to Darwin.

While I've always had my doubts about the feasibility of Hugh White's model for a Concert of Asia, I'm under no illusions about the dangers of the alternative. If the Cold War constituted an intense rivalry with a country that was both much less powerful than China and much less geopolitically hemmed in, it's hard to avoid one conclusion: we're in for a turbulent century.

Photo by Flickr user Beige Alert.