Australia’s China–US choice is three dimensional, not binary (Part 1)

May 2, 2019

RAMESH THAKUR. Australia’s China–US choice is three dimensional, not binary (Part 1)

As China–US tensions rise, Australia’s dilemma is almost always debated in terms of the competing gravitational pulls between China as its most important trading partner and the US as its ultimate security guarantor. This depiction of Australia’s primary current foreign policy dilemma as a binary choice is false. In reality, Australia’s dilemma is not two but three dimensional: trade,security and a rules-based order.

In a major foreign policy speech on 4 October, Vice President Mike Pence accused China of a ‘whole-of-government’ attack on US interests and vowed Washington would respond with robust countermeasures and will prevail against Chinese malfeasance. Pence levelled three charges. First, Beijing is using political, economic, military and propaganda tools to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the US. Second, China had built its manufacturing base at US expense through unfair tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft and industrial subsidies. Third, Beijing has steadfastly developed capabilities to erode America’s military advantages in the Pacific.

Coming on top of the ballooning trade war, Pence’s declaration was widely interpreted as the launch of ‘Cold War II’. This conceptualisation is deeply flawed but took hold among many analysts, including in Australia, as they warn of the looming China threat and the corresponding need to wean ourselves off trade dependence n China. Hence the dilemma. More than twice as many countries, including Australia, now have China as their biggest trading partner as the US. How do we simultaneously protect and promote our trading interests while dealing with China as the gravest potential security threat?

Westerners have had great difficulty getting the China relationship right, veering between the credulous who deny there is any security issue and the cynical who subordinate all other considerations to treating China as an enemy, with the attendant risk of turning this into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pence’s analysis resonated because it captures the lived experience of many countries in their China dealings. The problem lies not in the accuracy of the underlying core analysis, but in the excesses and overreach of US responses that tip over into paranoia, as noted by Wang Xiangwei, the former editor of the influential South China Morning Post.

China, like the US, is a great power. The natural instinct of all great powers is to pursue imperial foreign policies to protect and advance their own interests first, not ethical or altruistic policies that privilege other countries’ interests and priorities. This is evident with respect to both countries in the legal fight to extradite Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou from Canada. Very few independent analysts doubt that the US arrest warrant against Meng represents a weaponisation of the legal process as part of the China–US contest for strategic and technological supremacy. Because some form of retaliation by China was predictable, Canada was foolish to pick sides in this global strategic-technological contest. But the predictability of a Chinese response does not diminish the totally unjustified arrest of Canadians in China or the imposition of a death penalty on one. This is great power bullying at its cynical worst.

Consistent with this reality, China will not hesitate to harm Australia in punishment for decisions and actions that undermine its interests, connecting unrelated issues laterally: a ban or go slow on Australian coal imports, for example, in retaliation for excluding a Chinese telecom company from the Australian market. But Washington too is capable of cutting stand-alone security and trade deals with North Korea and China that undermine Japanese security and Australian commercial interests. Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr is surely right to warn Australia to be prepared for such an outcome.

On the second dimension, of course it is true that the US has been Australia’s primary and irreplaceable security guarantor. It is equally true that the alliance has brought many practical benefits to Australia in terms of access to hardware and intelligence sharing. More broadly still, the US presence in the Pacific since 1945, both residual through bases and over-the-horizon through the unrivalled US capacity to project power, has been mainly benign and largely beneficial in underwriting Asia–Pacific security and enabling unprecedented regional prosperity.

Nevertheless there are now four grounds for recalculating the cost-benefit analysis.

First, Australia’s military has become ever more closely embedded with the US military and taken part in operations in the Middle East whose relevance to our own national interests is, at best, tangential. How far should we go in integrating with the US military and at which point do we ask: in the cause of defending our sovereignty against all imaginable threats, have we surrendered it voluntarily to the US?

Second, the deepening integration with the US military comes with the cost that it makes us an increasingly direct target of hostile attacks. This is most clearly the case with the joint facilities, whose integral role in the US global nuclear command-and-control structure ensures they will be among the early targets of missile strikes by a nuclear enemy.

Despite this, third, with the Trump administration in particular there is no assurance whatsoever that should we come under attack, either in isolation or as part of a war involving the US, Washington will in fact come to our defence. In this context the frequency with which some commentators reaffirm their gratitude for US help in the Second World War is puzzling. The US entered that war only after it was itself attacked, not to defend European or Pacific allies.

And fourth, the Trump administration – whose re-election next year looks entirely conceivable at this point in the US presidential cycle – is the most vivid illustration of the danger that the US might itself provoke a war, either deliberately or through strategic stupidity, in which we get entangled. This could occur in Europe with Russia, in the Middle East with Iran, or in the Pacific with China. There are times when the administration seems determined to pick a fight, indifferent to who it is with. To paraphrase John Howard from a different context, should we not reclaim the right to say: we will decide when, where and against whom we go to war?

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