With a hat tip to the Lowy Institute Blog, these are some interesting comments by Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband, and a very high ranking leader within Australia's Liberal Party.
This is not the typical party line one often sees in the US or Australia, which from a political view, more frequently looks into the future of Asia in the context of US retaining superiority even when nodding to US relative decline. In this speech, Turnbull repeats a new tone on the subject, first noted by Sam Roggeveen last month, and again yesterday by calling for the pursuit of a future regional balance in Asia.
As Henry Kissinger recently reminded us, history is far from bunk in China “No other country can claim so long a continuous civilization, or such an intimate link to its ancient past and classical principles of strategy and statesmanship.”I have less interest in Australian politics than I do US politics, at least on this topic, because for the most part it is infrequent to see political leaders make bold statements with purpose and wisdom. Some of the issues raised in this speech represent a rare exception.
That is why when Deng Xiao Ping opened China up to the world in 1979 he invoked the example of the 15th century Admiral Zheng He who led great voyages across the Indian Ocean. In those days, an open and confident China was the world’s strongest nation. When later emperors closed China off to the world, Deng reminded the hardliners, China became weak and began a decline that ended with 150 years of humiliating invasion, colonization and exploitation by stronger nations.
A humiliation that in the 20th century included the brutality of the Japanese occupation and rape of Nanjing, and in the 19th, the Opium Wars which were the equivalent of the Medellin Cartel sending a nuclear submarine up the Potomac and threatening, successfully, to destroy the Capitol and White House unless the US disbanded the Drug Enforcement Agency.
China drank deep and long from the well of bitterness and defeat. And so when Mao Ze Dong announced his triumph from atop Tien An Men in 1949 his first words were Zhong Guo ren min zanqilai le – the Chinese people have stood up.
So it is no surprise that as China becomes richer it seeks to strengthen its military capacity. Those who interpret this as necessarily meaning a stronger China is a more aggressive one should reflect on that history and recent events.
China lost in the 19th century vast tracts of land in what is now Siberian Russia – the Amurskaya region for example. These thefts were ratified in unequal treaties in 1858 and 1860. Recognizing that depopulating yet resource rich Siberia may constitute an opportunity in the future, China could have decided to leave those treaties as illegitimate artifacts of its century of humiliation, to be redressed when times were propitious.
Instead it has chosen to renegotiate and settle the Sino-Russian borders with minor adjustments. Hardly evidence for imminent territorial expansion.
And as Kissinger has also pointed out, unlike the USSR or even the US, China does not seek to persuade other countries to adopt its values, let alone its system of Government.
The central role of trade in China’s prosperity also argues for its rise to remain peaceful. In 2010 China’s trade was 55 per cent of its GDP – the same as for Britain in the 1870s, the era of the Pax Britannica, and five times larger than trade in the US economy of the 1950s and 1960s when American economic dominance was greatest. Given the importance of a stable economy in the regime’s legitimacy, China’s rulers themselves have more to lose than almost anyone from conflict that disrupts global economic flows.
The best and most realistic strategic outcome for East Asia must be one in which the powers are in balance, with each side effectively able to deny the domination of the other – a scenario which Hugh White has written about extensively in the recent past.
With its energy and resource security depending on long global sea lanes, it is hardly surprising that China would seek to enhance its naval capacity. Suggestions that China’s recent launch of one aircraft carrier and plans to build another are signs of a new belligerence are wide of the mark.
In that regard, I disagree with the underlying premise of the 2009 Australian White Paper that we should base our defense planning and procurement on the contingency of a naval war with China in the South China Sea. Prejudice or wishful thinking is not a substitute for coolly rational analysis.
As I said in London, this is no time for another “long telegram” or talk of containment. It makes no sense for America, or Australia, to base long-term strategic policy on the proposition that we are on an inevitable collision course with a militarily aggressive China.
Yet remarkably, while all of us galahs in the political petshop are talking about the rise of Asia, many are apparently laboring under the misapprehension that while everything can change in the economic balance in our region, nothing will change in strategic terms.
In other words, even though China is about to become the world’s largest economy and is actually in the centre of East Asia, nonetheless the United States will remain the dominant power in the region, in the same way it has been since 1945 and even more so since the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose is not a sound basis on which to build Australia’s foreign policy.
Rather, our strategic response to the rise of China therefore should be to continue to deepen our engagement with that nation and with our other neighbors, as friends even if not as allies, and at the same time hedge against improbable but adverse future contingencies, as opposed to seeking to contain (futilely in all likelihood) a rising power.
Of course cool heads are required on all sides. China needs to be more transparent about its goals in the region and on the basis of that build confidence with its neighbors so that misunderstandings can be avoided.
In that light, the decision to host up to 2500 marines at an Australian army base in Darwin could hardly be regarded as a threat to China (just as Australian naval ships exercising with the PLA navy was presumably not regarded by the US as a threat). After all there are over 60,000 American service personnel including 17,000 marines in Japan and Korea – on China’s doorstep in comparison to Darwin.
China’s prickly reaction reflected not the foreshadowed deployment itself, but the context briefed out by the White House – that this was part of a strategy to stand up to growing Chinese economic and strategic power, a spin reflected in most media commentary despite being contrary to common sense (not to speak of geographic reality).
It suits President Obama’s domestic agenda to be seen to muscle up to China, even if the additional muscling does not bear too much analysis. But an Australian Government needs to be careful not to allow a doe-eyed fascination with the leader of the free world to distract from the reality that our national interest requires us truly (and not just rhetorically) to maintain both an ally in Washington and a good friend in Beijing – which is, after all, our most important trading partner and a principal reason why our unemployment rate is half that of North America or Europe.
If extravagant professions of loyalty and devotion to the United States strike a somewhat awkward note for many Australian ears, how do we imagine they sound in the capitals of our neighbors? And the same may be said in respect of equally extravagant compliments paid to Beijing. Australian leaders should never forget that great powers regard deference as no more than their due.
From a strategic perspective, I note that - finally - we see a legitimate political leader (and as expected, outside the US) at least attempting to raise the topic of policy options should US primacy not be maintained in the Pacific.
Hugh White has been raising the topic for some time, and as he articulated very well in his recent Obama Doctrine article in the Wall Street Journal, President Obama has made clear it is the policy of the United States to resist China's challenge to US primacy in Asia, using all the instruments of its power to strengthen and perpetuate the preeminent leadership the US has exercised in the region for decades. In a news conference in Canberra, Australia, on Nov. 16, President Obama described it as a mistake to suggest the U.S. fears China or is seeking to isolate the world’s most populous nation. He said, “The main message that I’ve said not only publicly but also privately to the Chinese is that with their rise comes increased responsibilities.” He went on to say, “It’s important for them to play by the rules of the road.”
Which is accurate, except it is also accurate to note that US policy is intended to insure they are US sanctioned rules and a road the US maintains some control over.
From Hugh White's recent contribution in the New York Times.
Everything now depends on how China responds. Optimists hope that Beijing will back off in the face of American resolve. Pessimists fear they will push back, escalating strategic rivalry between the world’s two strongest states and threatening the future peace and stability of Asia. Even if the optimists are right in the short term, the longer-term trends favor the pessimists. Historians may well look back at this as the moment that U.S.-China rivalry became overt and unstoppable. The consequences could be disastrous for everyone, including America. China’s economic scale makes it the most formidable strategic adversary America has ever confronted.The Diplomat recently described Hugh White as the Australian Canary. Maybe, but I'm more interested in who will be the US canary. The Republican candidates, one of which is likely to replace Barack Obama unless the President can learn economics in the next 12 months, are almost certain to adopt the Obama doctrine for Asia that centers on US primacy. All evidence suggests that US political leaders cannot take any political stand except one that focuses on US primacy in Asia now and forever. This is a fools gold, but no one ever said politics wasn't foolish.
Many believe that America has no choice because the only alternative to U.S. primacy is Chinese hegemony. But is that right? Does America need to dominate Asia in order to stop China dominating it? Or could America balance and limit China’s power, while still allowing a rising China more space? Might there be a way to prevent Chinese hegemony and still avoid outright rivalry? We should start asking these questions now, because we are running out of time to answer them.
So we are left to search for other leaders, whether civilian or military, who are ready to promote visions of Americas future foreign policy in Asia and around the world that is congruent with the very real possibility that China may indeed have the largest economy in the world by 2025 - just 15 years from now. If China becomes the worlds largest economy, would that disrupt American primacy in Asia? President Obama's policy record isn't very good, indeed he isn't running a reelection campaign based on his record in case you haven't noticed, so there is certainly no evidence this new Obama Doctrine for Asia will be successful. There is also little evidence that anyone is thinking about a Plan B.
As China builds up military resources and capabilities commensurable with their economic growth, how should the US respond? Whose strategic vision of the future includes US prosperity and security regardless of whether China is the largest economy in the world or not?
2. Definitionally, primacy refers to being “first in importance”. I generally refrain from using the term, though, for it is academically loaded and oftentimes misused. More often than not, leadership is a better alternative in this Asia-Pacific context. Thus, the U.S.—and U.S. interlocutors or defense pundits—should avoid using the language of seeking or seeking to maintain primacy.
3. Malcolm Turnbull discusses the notion “the United States will remain the dominant power in the region, in the same way it has been since 1945 and even more so since the collapse of the USSR in 1991”. I think a view the U.S. has been “dominant” in the region is partly ahistorical. The U.S. may have had maritime dominance; however, on the Asian landmass the record of the Cold War shows an ebb and flow of U.S. stature in the region. What is extremely clear, though, is that divorced of territorial ambitions and confronted with trying challenges in pursuing its interests, the U.S. has never sought to become and has never been a hegemonic power on the Asian continent.
4. “the underlying premise of the 2009 Australian White Paper that we should base our defense planning and procurement on the contingency of a naval war with China in the South China Sea” It is my impression South China Sea proper would be a mischaracterization of the envisioned area of action for Australia.
Since the Turkish threat, the Siege of Vienna and the Battle of Lepanto, the West has not faced a full-spectrum "alien" enemy. All the large wars since were within the White Man's club. So careful with any assumptions; against the typical Asian worldview even Anglo exceptionalism pales.
Re the 2009 Australian paper: With Australia de-facto more and more becoming a Chinese resources colony, it is not realistic to talk about a naval war. If they do they imply the Australian armed forces will become operational part of the U.S. forces at some future date. And even if armed conflict with China is in the future, it will certainly not be in the South China Sea (who cares about the South China Sea? that's like the close blockade of the German Hochseeflotte - didn't work either), but semi-global, with actions in the Indian Ocean, the Arctic Sea, and maybe in the North Atlantic, where ever Chinese trans-oceanic resources lines run, and where ever China thinks it can hurt Western interest with disruptive/offensive actions.
I don't see military conquest as the primary way China uses to expand its power. China has time. And they still have a much lower time preference than the West currently has. If the Chinese version of Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken doesn't happen now, it can still happen in 50 or 100 years. Chinese military action only if driven to extremes, or if their time preference increases drastically.
But why not Western military action first? Is that so unthinkable? China can be contained, its access to African, West-Asian, &c resources can be cut by naval action. And I think China sees that as a realistic possibility, and that's why they build their fleet. Battle of the Atlantic v3 so to say, this time in the Indian Ocean.
But what worries me is that the Western response to a rising China is primarily militaristic in character. Are we so weak already that we can't compete in the theatre of ideas, or on the market? We are re-active instead of pro-active and that's not good!
If you do. you're missing the big picture. China has nothing of anything that would be enough for self sufficiency to sustain a war longer than 6 months. Their people would starve, their energy supplies would dry up soon enough and they could not rebuilt the broken infrastructure without the raw materials they do not have on their land.
China needs to trade. their dominance of the planet will come from it. They will be a powerful economic giant that will more than likely dictate trading terms. All that will serve to do is redress the balance between the haves and have not nations. The West has gorged itself in consumptive habits now it will have to learn to become more austere. Europe is learning that lesson as is the US. Only in the US it's the people that are learning that lesson. The politicians are not listening as they should and in the case of the Tea Party wing of the Republicans. they a singing NaNaNaNa as they cover their ears.
Military action against China? You guys would have to kill 4 times the number Hitler killed and then, you'll just be getting started. What do you imagine your losses would be? You lot would have to as mad as Hitler to even think it.