How we can live with a weaker US

May 20, 2023
Dices with flags of USA and China on world map.

We must not exchange American hegemony for a dominant China. A new regional balance of power is the best answer.

The Defence Strategic Review rightly tells us that the unipolar moment has passed. But if that also marks the end of US strategic primacy, no one has told the Americans.

Maintaining global US primacy and denying regional primacy to China remains the bedrock of strategic thinking in the United States.

Australia has done well out of US primacy. It has underpinned our security and the security of our region since World War II. It created the strategic breathing space which enabled the Asian growth story including the spectacular economic growth of China.

So, why would we not get full square behind every effort to preserve US primacy? Aren’t our interests here closely aligned, if not identical?

The policy problem for Australia is not the historical benefit of US primacy but the future collateral damage to Australia’s interests from the policy missteps that may arise from the determination of the US to preserve its primacy.

The largest risk is that the US will come to believe that preserving its primacy requires it to thwart China’s rise, rather than manage China’s rise.

We are not there yet but policy on managing US-China relations, in both Washington and Beijing, is far from settled.

There is already a view in some quarters in the US that this is a zero-sum relationship; that anything which strengthens China’s economy comes at a cost to the US, and so the objective of US policy should be to weaken China.

A weaker Chinese economy will mean a weaker Chinese military, which means a weaker threat to US primacy.

Weakening China is fraught with both moral and geopolitical hazard. Is it right to say to 1.4 billion people that the policy of the US is to ensure that they never have the opportunity to lift their living standards, which today are around one-fifth of that of the US?

And, ethics aside, would it be in Australia’s economic interest to support a ‘‘thwart China’’ policy given China is our largest trading partner and that trade has been a significant factor in the rise in our national wealth over several decades?

Thwarting China only plays to China’s visceral resentment of what it sees as a century of humiliation. It will exacerbate tensions when the US and China need to find ways of better managing tensions.

It will render impossible the construction of guard rails for the relationship. A US-China relationship which moves in this direction is a recipe for geostrategic instability.

Thwarting China would also move the US fully into a containment strategy which is not in Australia’s interests. Containing China, which is deeply enmeshed in the global economy, is a policy dead end from an Australian perspective.

It is true that neither thwarting China nor containing China is the policy of the Biden administration. But going down this path is not a straw man. It is the logical end point of a policy which sets the preservation of primacy as the core objective.

China is equally determined to snatch primacy away from the US, at least in the Indo-Pacific. In some respects, this is even more risky because China is much less powerful than the US, and so its reach exceeds its grasp. Taiwan is the flashpoint for these two competing ambitions.

Australia is not a neutral observer here. We are a US ally, and we have no interest in seeing a weaker US, much less seeing China emerge as the primary power in our region for as long as it retains its authoritarian system.

The better way for Australia to deal with these complex issues is not to tether ourselves to US primacy, but to help craft a new strategic balance in the region, buttressed by US power – drawing in other countries that share our concerns about Chinese predominance – and creating a sufficiently strong strategic counterpoint. It can both constrain China when necessary, while also engaging China when it serves individual and collective interests.

Through the Quad and through strengthening bilateral relationships with India, Japan, Indonesia and others, we are doing all of this.

But preserving US strategic primacy still has a powerful hold on our strategic imagination, and we find it hard to accept that it can be eclipsed without doing us fundamental damage. US primacy makes sense for America, whose identity is deeply shaped by its standing as No. 1. But for Australia, the calculation is different. Our vital interests are in a stable regional balance that favours our interests.

That balance cannot be achieved without the strategic heft of the US or its alliances in the Indo-Pacific.

But preventing China becoming the hegemon of the region does not require ensuring the US remains the hegemon of the region. It requires only that the balance is strong enough and collective enough effectively to constrain China.

The US will inevitably be at the centre of such an arrangement, but that does not mean that US primacy must sit at its fulcrum. For Australia, US primacy may be desirable, but it is neither a vital interest nor the only pathway to a stable region.

There is a difference between US leadership and US primacy. Australia cannot control the competition for primacy, and no one knows how that competition will play out.

We are far from indifferent to its outcome but nor can we bank on the US prevailing. What we can do is help shape a regional balance which is stable, irrespective of how that competition eventually ends.

Peter Varghese is chancellor of the University of Queensland and chair of the Asialink Advisory Council. He is a former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and director general of the Office of National Assessments.


First published in the Financial Review eEdition May 18, 2023. Republished with permission.

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