Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 02:59 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 02:59 | SYDNEY

Gates and China


Sam Roggeveen


9 April 2009 14:57

In response to yesterday's posts from Rory and myself about the Australian perspective on Robert Gates' budget statement, Judah Grunstein at World Politics Review says 'there's still some ways to go before...the U.S.' margin of superiority over China becomes alarming'. To use a formulation favoured by our erstwhile prime minister, let's just say Rory and I are alert, not alarmed.

The thing to remember is that China does not have to match the US in global capability terms for US allies in the Pacific to start getting nervous about the strategic balance. All China has to do is be a credible competitor in the region, and that is already the case. As I've said before, my judgment of China's highly imperfect and incomplete military modernisation is that we have already passed the point at which the US could militarily intervene in a Taiwan conflict at acceptable risk.

So that's one regional partner which can no longer rely on US guarantees for its security. The next step for China will be to extend that reality beyond Taiwan and the first island chain. That is still the work of some years or even decades, but the direction is clear and seems inexorable.

However, when I said yesterday that Gates' plans indicated that the US did not intend to maintain or increase US overmatch against China, I did not mean to imply that this was an entirely negative development for Australia. I agree with Rory that it will make the region nervous, and it also makes Australia's regional future more uncertain. But the alternative would have been worse.

Had Gates announced on Monday a substantial increase to high-end military ('big war') capability in order to check the growth of China, we might now be writing about the beginnings of an era of military competition between China and the US. This is a future we should all try very hard to avoid. So whether by design or simple omission, Gates has chosen a less confrontational path that at least allows space for a long-term modus vivendi between these two Pacific powers. Gates and the Pentagon cannot themselves deliver that modus vivendi, but they can help create the conditions for it.