Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 00:54 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 00:54 | SYDNEY

US-China: Not by bread alone


Hugh White

This post is part of the What is the US consensus on China? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

27 July 2011 13:27

This post is part of the What is the US consensus on China? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Jeffrey Wilson argues that the China market, while big, is not that big, so our economy would get by OK without it. He concludes that we need not worry too much about having to choose between the America and China. He suggests, therefore, that we need not be too anxious about the risk that US-China relations will dive to the point where that choice has to be made.

Well, I'll leave it to the economists to debate how serious the loss of bilateral China trade would be to Australia's economy. I suspect it would be more serious than Jeffrey's numbers suggest. But the stakes for Australia of US-China hostility are way bigger than bilateral trade.

Economically, the kind of US-China rift that would force Australia to choose would force a lot of other countries to do the same. Workable US-China relations are vital to Australia's economy because they are vital to the whole global economy, not just to Australia's bilateral trade with China. So Jeffrey's numbers don’t really capture what's at stake for our economy. 

And of course the stakes go well beyond economics. If the US-China relationship goes bad, Australia would not just have to choose whether to keep selling to China, but whether to line up against China strategically – and possibly whether to join America in a war with China. That would be a very big decision indeed, with no good choices.

So despite Jeffrey's numbers, I think we do need to worry a lot about the future of the US-China relationship. The big issue for Australia is not to decide whether we would side with the US or China if forced to choose, but what we can do to help avoid facing such a choice. 

Finally, a follow-up to Geoff Garrett's latest

Clearly we disagree about whether it helps to talk publicly about the risks of strategic rivalry between the US and China and the need to reconfigure the Asian order to minimise these risks. He thinks it doesn't help, I think it does. Fine. 

But I'm still unclear what Geoff thinks about the underlying issue: does he believe that American primacy can continue to provide the foundation of Asia's order if China keeps growing? Does he think China will accept it? Does he think America can impose it if China doesn't? What kind of Asia would that lead to, and what would it mean for Australia?

Lastly, does he think there might be any alternative to American primacy other than Chinese primacy? I ask this particularly because, in his latest post, Geoff attributes to me the idea that we should accept a Chinese 'sphere of influence' in Asia. But as I said in my previous post, 'trying to understand and explore the difference between a region no longer dominated by America, and one dominated by China, is what the debate in Australia should be all about.'

Photo, of US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen visiting a Chinese airbase, by Flickr user Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.