Foreshadowed warnings by American spokesmen to the Prime Minister and his party during their coming visit to the United States about the rise of China reflect a belated realisation on America’s part that the China challenge is for real, but do not reflect the position of Australia, which has important links to both competing powers.
As the Prime Minister prepares to leave for the United States, at the head of an important business and governmental delegation, our media is replete with articles about the warnings which the delegation will receive from American spokesmen from various quarters about the evil-doings of China in various fields. The “Belt and Road” infrastructure project, for example, is portrayed as primarily a challenge to the United States (when it is probably actually to a large extent a means to find work for China’s array of formidable construction companies, running out of things to do at home). China’s efforts to persuade and influence other countries are described as sinister, when they are actually very much what any large power—certainly including the United States—does to try to get its way. China’s annual investment in its armed services is noted with alarm, without adding that it is still far less than that of the United States.
It’s perhaps natural enough that the United States, probably just now really taking on board that China is not going to “go away”, is so concerned about its challenge to the United States as global leader. But that need not be taken as the paradigm for how we should think. Historically we owe a great deal to the United States—without them I would be writing this in Japanese—but we also know that when exigencies arise all countries, including the United States, are primarily concerned with their own national interests. Australia learned this in regard to the comparative importance of Australia and Indonesia at the time of the Kennedy Administration, and a recent biography of a former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Sir Keith Waller, reminds us of the long-standing, and unsuccessful, efforts of Australian governments to get access to American strategic thinking.
So we have to think of our own national interests, which are essentially served by the two great super-powers of the Asia-Pacific, the United States and China, reaching a modus vivendi. We are deeply involved with, and have greatly benefited from our involvement with, both. Our involvements differ: we have very many close contacts, including sporting contacts, with the United States—the Davis Cup, the America’s Cup—but we have many more citizens of Chinese origin than of American. Economically we are deeply involved with both, but it’s China that carried us through the global financial crisis. Strategically we are a close ally of the United States (though we also have a formal strategic relationship with China), but it’s not crucial to us that the United States remains the predominant power in the Western Pacific in ways which are unacceptable to China.
The Prime Minister and his delegation will be exposed to the full range of American opinion on the world, as well as on domestic issues. Let’s hope that he, and his delegation, remembers that he’s there to represent us, a significant, if medium-sized country, and that he doesn’t feel obliged to sign on to a China-bashing scenario which, when it all comes down to it, is really a question of the old bull and the young bull. If the United States and China fall into the “Thucydides trap”, by which the rising power and the established one fall into conflict, the last thing we want is to be caught in that trap as well.
Geoff Miller is a former Australian diplomat who served in a number of Asian countries, as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and as Director-General, Office of National Assessment.