As Owen Harries, one of Australia’s most eminent foreign affairs thinkers once reminded me, experts tend to be relentless followers of academic fashion; and the learned a “herd of intellectual minds”. Nowhere is this more apparent than talk about “the rise of China” and the dilemma it creates for Australia.
The common argument is that Australia needs to dramatically choose between its strategic interests — which are based on deepening the US alliance — and our economic interests, with China our largest trading partner. In reality, ongoing tensions between the US and China should not present any fundamental dilemmas for Canberra since the capacity of Beijing to make Australia choose is much weaker than many experts appear to believe.
The Australian decision to reaffirm our alliance with the US by deepening co-operation is a choice well made. China has every right to rise in the way of its own choosing. But it just happens that the existing US-led order is preferred by almost all major states in the region (except for North Korea, Burma, possibly Cambodia and Laos and perhaps China.) As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton correctly points out, it is up to Beijing to convince the region that it wants to play by the existing rules that have served the region — and China — so well for decades.
Moreover, China is a strong and rich state that rules over a weak and poor people. Even if its domestic weaknesses do not derail its economic growth, the smart decision for Canberra still comes down to understanding leverage. And China does not have anywhere near as much of it as many experts believe.
First, take the fact that China has become our No.1 trading partner. This appears to offer Beijing leverage until we dig a little deeper. If China wants to continue its economic growth that is predominantly driven by fixed investment spending — and the Chinese Communist Party has little option if it wants to remain in power — it needs reliable and accessible Australian resources and lots of it. This is why China continued to buy Australian resources at record levels even after the bilateral relationship reached rock-bottom in the middle of the Kevin Rudd years in 2009.
Until China becomes the dominant centre of domestic consumption in Asia and the world — several decades away at best — it will not translate its large economic size in absolute terms into genuine economic and therefore political leverage over regional powers.
Second, too much is made of Chinese diplomatic achievements. Reportedly, Beijing has more diplomats in Asia than all other states combined. They have done a magnificent job of persuading states that China is a legitimate rising great power. But suspicions remains that China takes a “hierarchical” view of its place in Asia — with the Middle Kingdom on top. And with claims over the East China Sea and over four-fifths of the South China Sea, it has a long way to go before key capitals see China as a preferable pre-eminent power over the US or even Japan in Asia.
It is no co-incidence that key posts such as Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, Jakarta and New Delhi have strengthened their military relationships with Washington as Beijing becomes more assertive. It is hardly surprising that Canberra is looking to do the same.
This might truly be the beginning of the “Asian century”. China’s rise is central to the narrative. But Washington, rather than Beijing, remains the better bet to lead it.
*Dr John Lee is a foreign policy fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and a scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC