Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 23:25 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 23:25 | SYDNEY

Email of the day: Obama has better instincts on China


Sam Roggeveen


28 February 2008 08:30

From Edward Cohen, a former Lowy Institute intern now studying for the MPhil in International Relations at Cambridge University:

Hugh White’s recent opinion piece in The Australian raises a critical question: which of the presidential candidates would conduct foreign policy in a way most accommodating to Australia’s interests? White argues that John McCain’s broad credibility on national security issues and membership of the Republican Party would enable him to demonstrate the flexibility that China’s emergence requires without suffering domestic political damage in the process.

White argues that the historical data on McCain suggest he brings a personal strength to the problem, and it would be risky to expect that Obama could do the same. But Obama has indicated his clear ‘Nixonesque’ preference for meeting with the leaders of unsavoury regimes to set those countries’ relationship with the US on a new course. We need to hear more detail from Obama as to what exactly this would mean.

The problem for McCain is that most of the Republican constituency is convinced China represents a threat to America’s global primacy. McCain has repeatedly demonstrated that his image of the world has existential military threats among its most salient features. It remains to be seen whether McCain is willing to redefine the idea of ‘strength’ to include acting cautiously and non-confrontationally on China along the lines that White suggests. McCain has advocated formalising a quadrilateral security dialogue with Australia Japan, India and the US, a move which would almost certainly convince Beijing that the US was bent on containing China.

China’s main goal at present is internal stability and sustaining its growth, and as a result its diplomacy is driven in large part by its own insecurity, not expansionism. Consequently, China has a fundamental stake in the present international system so that it has a secure environment in which to address its economic problems. Obama’s less hawkish outlook makes him more likely to pay attention to this problem. America can still hedge militarily against China and demand its compliance with trade regulations while expanding and deepening its security dialogue so as to encourage mutual reassurance and confidence-building. The signals Obama has given so far suggest he more attuned to the possibilities of common security and less keen on militarily enforcing American values. This is exactly the outlook that Australia needs coming out of Washington if we are to avoid being forced to  choose between US and China.