A long game—peace in the Asia-Pacific

Apr 6, 2023
Vector map of the Pacific Ocean showing China, Australia and the USA

Perhaps Australia should play the “long game”, and do everything we can to avoid a war in the Pacific, not just work out how we might take part in one.

Despite all the war talk in our media about the need to arm against China, be prepared for conflict, etc, in a recent interview the Chinese Ambassador to Australia was determinedly positive about the future of our bilateral relationship despite AUKUS—which he called a”bad idea”. And in China, despite the talk of being prepared for war by 2027, officials have recently welcomed visits to China by high officials of the major—and recently electorally successful—opposition party in Taiwan, the KMT. So perhaps we should play the “long game” too, and do everything we can to avoid a war in the Pacific, not just work out how we might take part in one.

In a recent article in “The Monthly” Professor Hugh White was very critical of the Government’s policy towards China, of AUKUS and the nuclear submarine project, and of the way in which we seem to have signed on to the US view of China as the principal adversary which we are bound to have to fight at some stage. In the article he calls on Foreign Minister Penny Wong, as the Cabinet member with the deepest background knowledge, to take the lead among her colleagues.

That’s not only a big but a complicated ask, for a number of reasons. For example, Senator Wong is not only a Cabinet member, bound by Cabinet responsibility, but also particularly close to Prime Minister Albanese, both as a friend and as a supporter, as we all saw from the memorable photos taken at the time of Labor’s election win. And Prime Minister Albanese has repeatedly made it clear that he is a supporter of AUKUS and the nuclear submarine project. As recently as last weekend in South Australia he spoke of the Government making Australia secure not for a few years but for decades, so that’s where he stands.

We can’t really expect someone described as his closest and most important ally in the Government to go against his position, a position which Deputy Prime Minister Marles has repeatedly made clear he shares.

But it’s worth noting that the PM isn’t known for attacking China, and media speculation is that he would accept an invitation to visit China if one were offered. Is one likely to be offered, as reported by the SCMP? We’ll see, but possible straws in the wind include Premier Andrews’ recent visit, planned visits by the Western Australian and Queensland Premiers, the attendance of the Assistant Minister for Trade at the Boao Forum on Hainan Island, contacts and a planned in-person meeting between Trade Ministers, and a coming visit to Australia this month by the new Chinese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, a former Ambassador to Australia.

On the other hand, of course, we’ve had a spate of visits by senior American and British figures, military and civilian, seeking to promote the AUKUS agreements and to implement aspects of them in various ways. We’ve had emphasis placed on President Biden’s concept of the state of the world as a struggle between democracy and autocracy, and on the claimed Chinese military threat to Taiwan, as well as our own coming Defence Strategic Review; there have already been announcements of military purchases and acquisitions, including sea mines and observation satellites.

So where do these competing views, and claims on us, leave us? In some ways not in a bad position, with our main strategic ally wanting to see us strengthen our capabilities and do more in the way of hosting its own, and our main economic partner wanting to strengthen our economic relationship and look for more things to do together.’

The problem, and the danger, of course lies in the bad relationship between China and the US. And of course there are different accounts of the reasons for that. China sees the US as determined to try to prevent its legitimate development, what it used to call its “peaceful rise”. And the US sees China as determined to supplant it, not only in the Western Pacific but, according to US Secretary of State Blinken, everywhere. (For a very good account of these different perspectives and their origins see Kevin Rudd’s recent book, “The Avoidable War”.)

And how do we stand in regard to these two nuclear-armed super-powers? I find it hard to go past the view expressed by Peter Varghese, former Secretary of DFAT, which I’ve quoted before:—“If we tether ourselves to the cause of US primacy we leave ourselves exposed to US policies that may make sense for the US but not necessarily for Australia. We risk structuring our defence forces to fight alongside the US rather than primarily for the defence of Australia. We risk buying into a narrative of democracy versus autocracy which, however inspiring, misreads the strategic and historical drivers of China’s actions and has little resonance in our region.”

And in regard to and in tune with that, I join with Hugh White in quoting from a 2019 speech by Penny Wong as Shadow Foreign Minister:–

“Over the next decades, neither the United States nor China will be able to exert undisputed primacy. They must be prepared to live with each other as major powers”.

I think this is still a very good guide as to how we should regard the situation in our large and important neighbourhood, and what we should try to achieve. It’s a legitimate position for the Prime Minister to want to see Australia’s presently very weak defence capacity strengthened, and one we can all support (though not necessarily the nuclear submarines). But that doesn’t mean that we should commit ourselves to automatically support all and any American positions which take as their basis the wish to constrain or contain China. Despite what supporters of the American position often say about China’s “aggressive behaviour”, China has not been at war with any of its neighbours except for one limited—and unsuccessful— clash with Vietnam in 1979. Over the same period the United States has used its armed forces in a number of countries remote from it, including Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

So it’s not a matter of an always peaceful United States working to contain an aggressive rising power. Rather it’s a matter of the United States seeking to contain China simply because it is a rising power. As a leading American “realist” academic once said to me, “the United States can not tolerate a peer competitor”. But now it has one, and we are not obliged to join in its containment.

The last thing Australians want to see in the Asia-Pacific is a war between the US and China, the two biggest economies in the world, both nuclear powers. The scale of destruction cannot be imagined. Penny Wong deserves a further word in all this: as she said in 2018, Australia should seek a multipolar order in Asia, “a multipolar region in which the United States remains deeply and constructively engaged, in which China is a positive contributor, and in which the perspectives and contributions of smaller powers are respected and valued”.

We can, and should, try to promote that very sensible objective at the same time as we set about improving the current inadequate state of our defence capacity. The latter task will take a long time; so will the former. But improving our defences in order to make war less likely is a goal espoused by very senior figures, such as Richard Marles and Peter Dutton, in both major Parties, and the objective of a secure, prosperous and stable multi-polar region is also shared by the countries of ASEAN. We could do much worse than intensify our dialogues with countries like Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia about useful paths to pursue. Improving our defences need not be the only “long game” to play; working to see that we don’t have to call on them, or get swept up in what Kevin Rudd has called an “Avoidable War”, is the more positive path.

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