There is increasing discussion in the international press of uneasy parallels — with some pointing to similarities and others highlighting major differences — between the developing situation in East Asia today and the Balkans tinderbox 100 years ago. Even former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has joined the debate (“A maritime Balkans of the 21st century?” Foreign Policy, Jan. 30). At the heart of the conversation is China’s parallel with a rising Germany a century ago.
Australia today is experiencing tensions between its historical origins, cultural roots and political antecedents in Europe, and its geographical location and trading interests in Asia. At the heart of the policy tussle is the challenge of managing the bilateral relationship with China.
China is the dominant political and economic power in the region and the new center of geopolitical gravity in the world. In the last three years it has recklessly squandered much of the good will patiently accumulated over three decades by an aggressive regional posture in dealings with several neighbors.
What to many Westerners is a new world disorder appears to many non-Western observers as a shifting global order. Where the sun never set on the British empire in the 19th century, it is rising once again in the east in this century. Pax Britannica was built on territorial control through legal colonialism that allowed Britain to extract, process, move and use or sell ownership of vast natural resources around the globe.
Pax Americana was built on control of resources through market access-guaranteeing regimes that ensured a worldwide flow of capital, goods and technology to underpin U.S. prosperity and security. By building global markets, not a global empire, Washington escaped legal responsibility for the security and welfare of its neocolonial dependents. It succeeded by convincing others that “global public goods” were dependent on, if not synonymous with, the order guaranteed by U.S. dominance.
As China expands its power and influence by buying goods and access and underwriting and building infrastructure in Asia, Africa and Latin America to cement geopolitical ties, boost trade and create energy corridors, it seems indifferent to the importance of conflating regional and global public goods with Chinese national interests.
Against that backdrop, as legacy disputes are dusted off the history shelf by an increasingly assertive China, four propositions are worth recording.
First, unlike the European powers, China has no historical, philosophical or literary tradition or discourse of acting as a great power in a system of great powers. Rather, its inheritance is that of the Middle Kingdom with tributaries accepting its suzerainty and paying tribute in return for not being attacked.
For the first time in history, China is a truly global power. Both Beijing and the rest of the world are having to adjust to this dramatic new reality. Previously, a triumphalist West had written the rules and made all the big decisions on the international economy, trade and security. Western ideas gained global ascendancy not because they were intrinsically superior but because they were backed by bombers, battleship and aircraft carriers. Today there is a significant economic, geopolitical and even moral rebalancing in train in global norms, institutions and practices.
Second, also for the first time in history, two bilateral relationships are experiencing relative geopolitical rise and decline simultaneously: China-U.S. globally, and India-China in Asia. Washington has been more generous in adjusting to China’s rise compared to Beijing’s tardiness in accommodating India’s rising profile.
Third, historically China has been a continental power. Now its maritime interests and activities are growing. As China fills out as a major power, uncontested U.S. primacy will become increasingly unsustainable. Equally, however, a U.S. withdrawal from the region would be destabilizing.
Fourth, for China, matters of status and identity trump calculations of economic gain and pain. We may believe that the growing integration and interdependence of China with the global economy makes armed conflict too costly, and that the Pacific military balance is weighted so heavily toward the United States that Beijing would not be foolish enough to challenge Washington. What if China believes that the costs to Washington would be so high that the U.S. would back down?
Along many such misperceptions and miscalculations do the bloody rivers of human history flow into the ocean of oblivion for once-great powers. It would be foolish to underestimate the power of raw politics to inflame nationalist passions to the point of a destructive conflagration.
During this critical transition, conflict will turn to war if China’s legitimate aspirations are thwarted and its interests attacked, particularly in the context of two centuries of slights, injustices and humiliations inflicted on it by the West and Japan. But equally, the stage will be set for conflict down the line if the opposite posture of appeasement is adopted.
The rise in tensions over disputed claims to islands and rocky outcrops in the South China Sea has the potential to impact adversely on Australia’s interests. As argued by professor Michael Wesley, more than half of Australia’s trade passes through these seas; any outbreak of armed conflict to Australia’s north would destabilize its strategic region; and any restrictions on the U.S. naval presence and movements would degrade the Pacific strategic balance to Australia’s net disadvantage.
How should Australia respond? According to former ambassador to China Geoff Raby, Australia’s 2009 defense white paper “was read and understood by media in both Australia and China as being about the ‘China threat’. ” Some believe that in Chinese eyes, Canberra has joined the U.S. in a de facto containment strategy as indicated by public statements in both capitals, the U.S. pivot to Asia, the decision to station a new contingent of U.S. marines in Darwin, and the buildup of military links with India by both.
Others counter that China’s rapid military modernization and assertive behavior pose a direct challenge to the U.S. and allies that requires a robust response.
A third group is skeptical of the quality of China’s military and believes that the U.S. and allies will retain a significant edge well into the foreseeable future. It is premature to accommodate to the realities of China’s power, although it would be dangerously provocative to develop an indigenous military capability to challenge China around Australia’s approaches.
A policy of containment could become self-fulfilling by provoking China’s hostility. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has voiced concern that under the rhetorical rubric of a strategic pivot to Asia, with Australian complicity-cum-collusion, the U.S. risks turning China into an enemy that Australia does not need and China does not want to be.
Professor Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.