Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:22 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:22 | SYDNEY

Whisper it: We are containing China, just a bit

9 July 2012 16:27

Robert Ayson is Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, Wellington.

In his recent post on the perennial risk of alliance entrapment, Andrew O'Neil poses a teasing post-November question: what would Canberra do if a Romney White House tried to enlist Australia for a neo-containment strategy against China?

Followers of the Australian debate will be able to situate this intriguing hypothetical in terms of the ugly choice between the US and China that no prime minister in Canberra ever wants to make. But what if Australia is already part of a containment strategy, or at least a partial one?

Even making this suggestion can be deeply controversial. Some would say it is just plain wrong. After all, the Obama Administration has repeatedly stated that it has no intention of containing China and that such an approach would work against Washington's interests. And if the historical record is any guide, a Romney presidency would come to a similar conclusion once some of America's business leaders had made their feelings known about the China market.

That logic seems inescapable. Containment may have made sense to George Kennan in a world of two economically self-contained blocs. But it has no place in a system where China's involvement in the world capitalist economy is so pervasive and mutually beneficial. America would not only be shooting itself in the foot by adopting containment. Almost all of its allies and partners around the region, including Australia, would be doubling over in pain as well.

And then there is the 'how' question. Even if someone was silly enough to promote containment as an idea, would it be doable? As New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key indicated in a recent talk on foreign policy, anyone who thinks China's impressive expansion can be reversed needs their head examined.

I don't think the US is seeking to contain China economically. But countries don't normally stick to one strategy or play on just one chessboard. And the logic of economics does not necessarily apply in the military realm, where the relationship between the two giants is much more zero-sum.

Think of the growing contest between China's anti-access capabilities and America's air-sea-battle concept. That's much closer to an analogy with mercantilism than to the benefits of free trade. The US may welcome China's participation in the WTO. But does it really want China's navy to escape the island chains?

These competitive military positions are are not altogether irrational approaches for each country to take. But they can be dangerous. And it seems to me that there is at least a smidgen of containment thinking behind Washington's military rebalancing in Asia and its enthusiasm for deeper strategic relationships with a range of allies and partners in the region. Thoughtful heads in Beijing may recognise that the second of these factors is partly China's fault for being so assertive in 2010. But whatever the cause, they would be bananas not to occasionally think that the pivot and stronger alliances looks just a bit like containment.

This means that Australia is, willingly or unwillingly, also participating in a wee bit of containment, even if no leader in Canberra would or could ever admit as much.

But merely welcoming China as a growing economic powerhouse, which everyone in the region is still doing as they nervously watch Beijing's strategic intentions, is not enough to show that some sort of containment is implausible. The Marines in Darwin, the prospects of increased US naval and aerial access to Australian facilities, the potential availability of Cocos Islands to US aircraft, and the unabashed enthusiasm in both major Australian parties for a stronger alliance, can all too easily give the wrong impression.

Australia doesn't just face a hypothetical alliance entrapment problem should Romney come first in November and insist in the new year that the US and its friends put a break on China's power. In some small way, at least, containment is already in play.

Photo by Flickr user Luc V de Zeeuw