GEOFF MILLER. The Good American.

Even a “good American” uses language in regard to China that raises questions about America’s stance in its envisaged long existential struggle with China.

Recently Australia has enjoyed a visit from Nicholas Burns, distinguished former US diplomat and Under-Secretary of State, and now a Harvard Professor.  He was brought to Australia by the Lowy Institute, and visited a number of Australian cities. He spoke to the Lowy Institute in Sydney on 8 October, and an article by Peter Hartcher based on an interview with him appeared in the SMH of 15 October.

It’s fair to say that Burns comes across as a “good American”, steeped in liberal internationalism, and well aware of the adverse reaction internationally to President Trump’s erratic, untruthful and disloyal behaviour.  But, Burns said, all is not lost; there are many more in the US like him, and he, as an adviser to Joe Biden, is making it his business to see that they triumph at the 2020 Presidential election.

Most of us would say that that indeed is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but what would it entail in terms of US policies towards the rest of the world?  Perhaps partly because he was speaking in Australia, Burns stressed that the US-China relationship, or competition, would be the most consequential international issue for the future.   He said that this would be the case whoever becomes US President after Trump, and that what is involved is a “long-term competition for power”.

This, he said, would be played out on “four battlefields”— military, advanced technologies, economic and trade, and ideas—democracy versus authoritarianism.  But despite the “battlefields” analogy, China would be an adversary or competitor, not an enemy. In certain fields it could be a co-operator, for example in the fields of climate change, the structure of the world trade system, and controlling pandemics.

Despite these possible fields of cooperation Burns made it clear that he sees China as on “the other side” from Pacific democracies like the “Quad”—the US, Japan, India and Australia—which he sees as very much alive and relevant.  (However, it’s worth noting that shortly after Burns made this reaffirmation Indian Prime Minister Modi hosted President Xi Jinping in South India.)

Burns’ wording in regard to the first two of his “four battlefields” that Burns’ wording raises some questions.  He said that of the four the first, military, was the most important, and that this meant that the US had to remain the no.1, prime or predominant power in the Western Pacific.  He said that the US military had a plan for this, involving sea and air power, and making Taiwan “a tough nut to crack”. This also involved being the leader in the “weaponization of advanced technology”.

I must say I found it depressing to hear a representative of US liberal internationalism say that the most important sphere of competition between his country—still by far the world’s leading military power —and China is the military one; that to succeed in this it is crucial to lead in “weaponizing” advanced technologies such as a.i., quantum science and biotech;  that a prime objective will be to remain the “predominant power” in the Western Pacific, i.e. off China’s coast; and that we, Japan and India should join it in these objectives.

This is a barren recipe, ignoring the fact that while China is undoubtedly “rising” across a broad front, the US should surely aim, and be confident that it is able, to compete with it in terms of what is the most desirable and effective society, without feeling it has to rely on military “predominance”.

It reminds one of the blunter, and more extreme, formulation given in both private and public by University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer when in Australia earlier in the year.  He was asked why it was necessary for the US to regard China as a foe just because it was successful and growing. He replied that “the US can not tolerate a peer competitor”.

For years now the debate in Australia has been about how to respond to the changed and still changing power structure in the Western Pacific, and the need to accommodate and make room for the aspirations that come inevitably with China’s rise.  Despite Burns’ ruling out China as “an enemy”, if his and Mearsheimer’s views are typical it seems that the US is still a long way from a realistic readiness to reach such an accommodation.

Geoff Miller is a former Australian diplomat and government official.

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4 Responses to GEOFF MILLER. The Good American.

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    In supporting the remarkably admirable Senator for Massachusetts’ – Elizabeth Warren’s – Presidential Candidacy (I understand that she led the race as from last Thursday), I note that Biden would be driven to maximise his only apparent advantage – his “competence” and experience in foreign policy. So I take his ‘battlefield’ statements simply as an instrument to help his domestic political credibility.

    Australia’s task is two-fold. Firstly, to keep our balance while Trump serves out the little time remaining of his term. Secondly, to pray for a Warren victory!

  2. Allan Behm says:

    This is a nicely argued, if somewhat dispiriting, piece from Geoff Miller. If the US wishes to be truly exceptional, it might need to work out how to adapt to living with a peer to the benefit of all parties rather than trying to disadvantage China to the benefit of none.

  3. malcolm harrison says:

    The war against China has been declared and on some levels, mainly campaigns of disinformation, is quite well advanced. Whether this war is necessary or essential is presently beside the point, as it is clear that all sides of US politics see China as some kind of existential threat. And by existential threat, Americans do not mean that China is threatening to destroy America, merely surpass her in ways that the rulers of America find unacceptable. It is not a war that China wants, but listening to the rhetoric from the beltway, it is clear that a war is being fashioned. And how does this affect Australia. Well, clearly its a catastrophe. We will be asked, and probably have no doubt already been asked, to join forces to defeat this threat, which is in essence a threat to American self esteem, and is not really existential at all. It is my firm conviction that if we get too involved in this struggle between China and the US, we will become roadkill.

  4. Andrew Glikson says:

    When politicans and economists talk about “the US-China relationship, or competition, would be the most consequential international issue for the future”, and similar expressions, they do not take a “minor” detail into account. Namely, both counntires are extremely vulnerable to global warming, the US due mainly to extreme weather events (hurricanes) and China due to extensive flooding through sea level rise of its northeast urban and agriculltural regions.
    But then politicans and economists rartely take these advancing physical realities into account.

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