Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:46 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:46 | SYDNEY

To find a Beijing Bismarck


Graeme Dobell

5 October 2010 10:38

Oh, for that long gone unipolar moment when all we had to worry about was that the US might be just too powerful for its own good.

Just before the US rolled into Iraq, I recall hearing one of Canberra's defence gurus opine that he wanted the US to win, but not too easily. About the same time, that wry Gallic strategist Francois Heisbourg flitted through town to remark that the US unilateralists would have to re-learn an old  lesson: you can do a lot of things with bayonets, but you can't sit on them. (It's a wonderful line, attributed variously to Talleyrand, Napoleon, Cavour and several others.)

Such perspectives from the start of the decade have been stirred by a marvellous piece by Walter Russell Mead. Fermenting the honey and spice as required in mead, he writes of the need for a US that is neither too powerful with its bayonet, nor too weak to take up its weapons. Mead says that a chastened but powerful America is what most of the world really wants:

Many Europeans (especially in Germany and France) told me during the first Bush term that they hoped that America would win in Iraq once the war started — but that they hoped the win would be slow and painful enough that we would not want to repeat the experience.This, more or less, is what happened and today many of those same Europeans are more worried about the possibility that President Obama will not be assertive enough with American power than they are worried about American arrogance and pride.

Bingo. And in Asia, make that a bingo with flashing lights. The thing Asia hates worse than being bullied by the US is being ignored by the US. And much worse even than a non-involved US would be an America that didn't live up to its standard language of continuing to be an Asian power.

Headlines such as 'Asia's New Cold War' reveal a turn in tone and temperature this year. The US has put in some effort to get back into the game, speaking 'fluent ASEAN' as well as attending to the giants in North Asia. What has really changed this year, though, is the advent of a Beijing with a strangely tin ear for the way its voice is being heard in the rest of Asia. Canberra has the bruises to illuminate the issue of the kick-to-kiss ratio in dealings with Beijing.

We now offer a new Foreign Minister superbly equipped as a Sinologist. As with his Prime Ministership, it will be a matter of how skilfully Kevin Rudd manages to employ his considerable skills. A glimpse of Rudd's wrestle with the China conundrum is his Morrison lecture, with its three dark scenarios: (1) China as threat; (2) China as direct competitor with the US for control of the international system; or (3) China as self-absorbed mercantilist bully.

The sharp spice Mead brings to this discussion is his exploration of the idea that China is turning into an Asian form of Imperial Germany. You've heard the analogy before, but trust Mead to offer it with verve, and then to relate it directly to recent headlines. Mead doesn't quite cast Deng as Bismarck. But he argues that Deng and his immediate successors stood with Bismarck in wanting to be nice to all the neighbours so the rising power could keep on rising unchecked.

Some of the new generation in Beijing are taking the role of Wilhelm II, and no longer see any need for Dengist or Bismarckian caution or courtesy.

Chinese policy today seems bent on following Wilhelm's road to ruin. Chinese pressure is pushing countries like India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia towards closer cooperation with the United States...Worse, from a Chinese point of view: it will take many years to live down the unpleasant impression its current actions are making. Twenty years of scrupulously patient effort at getting its neighbours to embrace China's peaceful rise are being squandered by six weeks of aggressive diplomacy. Just as Soviet bullying periodically strengthened the NATO alliance by reminding Europeans just how much they needed American protection, so China today is unintentionally solidifying America's Pacific alliances at no cost to us.

I liked Mead's point that Wilhelm's arrogance left him with the lousiest allies: the imploding Ottoman state and the ramshackle Austrian monarchy. Likewise for China: the hereditary Marxist dictatorship in North Korea and the military state in Burma.

All this leads Mead to discuss the idea that US power has a ceiling and a floor. If the US power heads towards the roof, as it did in George W Bush's first term, there must be push back from the rest of the world. The interesting proposition is that in Asia at the moment we are seeing the other end of the scale. US power in the region may have reached its floor. The region is rallying round the US precisely because the boys in Beijing are being so belligerent. Where be Beijing's new Bismarck' More bourgeoisie urbanity, please, less bellicose nationalism.

Photo by Flickr user 1way2rock, used under a Creative Commons license.