Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 07:54 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 07:54 | SYDNEY

Constraining China is counterproductive


Hugh White

8 February 2008 08:33

Both Sam’s characteristically pithy post yesterday, and Raoul Heinrich’s nicely-judged contribution to the debate, do much to clarify what is really at stake here. Sam asks whether I can imagine circumstances in which the rise of China would make our US alliance less central to Australia’s foreign and strategic policy. My answer is yes, I certainly can. If America ceases to be the dominant strategic power in Asia, then our relationship with the US will be less important than it has been over the past century when it has been the dominant power. Personally, I would prefer that the US did remain dominant, because that has suited Australia so well.  But you don’t always get what you want.

Raoul wonders how far we should go in accommodating China, and he is absolutely right: it is so easy for accommodation to slide into appeasement. So one of the really central questions to be asked is how much power and influence are we prepared to concede to China’s growing power before we say ‘enough’. Some people – I think including Sam, and maybe Raoul, and almost all Americans — think that any Chinese challenge to American military and political primacy in Asia is unacceptable.

I’m more liberal: I think Australia can and should accept some encroachment by China on American primacy, not because I prefer China to America, but because I fear that the costs of imposing tighter limits on China’s growing influence will be too high. By trying to limit China to the kind of role it has accepted in Asia since Nixon went to Beijing in 1972, we risk destroying the foundations for peace in the region that we all want to preserve. We cannot stop China’s power growing unless are willing to stop trading with it, so how do we accommodate the resulting pressure on the international order in Asia unless we give China more room to move? And how grave may be the consequences if that peace breaks down? Don’t assume disasters only happen in history books.

But I agree with Raoul: that does not mean we let the Chinese do whatever they want. There should be limits. One clear limit is the use of force to infringe the rights of other states in the region. Australia should not tolerate Chinese use of force to push others around (though Taiwan is a special case because we do acknowledge it is part of China), and hence I agree with Raoul that we would not want to see them deploy forces into our region. And we do need to ensure that our forces are capable of defending our interests should they try.   

All this is pretty scary. It requires more complex and nuanced judgements of where Australia’s interests lie and how we can best serve them than those we have generally made in the past. But that is the nature of the situation we face on the margins of Asia in the Asian century. I think both Raoul and Sam are still thinking that Australia’s strategic choices will always be framed in the same terms as they have been in the past. This underestimates just how profound the changes we might face in Asia over coming decades might be, and how deeply those changes could challenge the way we have thought about our security for the past two hundred years.