RICHARD WOOLCOTT. The rise of China and the reaction of the United States

Jun 21, 2017

It has been stated that the Chinese are the “new kids on the block” and are getting a beating from the United States,because of China’s alleged behaviour in the South China seas.

It has also been argued that ,by contrast ,the United States has a “long, successful and well funded record”.  This record is linked in Australia to the role of the US Studies Centre and the Australian American Leadership Dialogue. But the fact is that the alliance has also led us into one lost war in Vietnam,two losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ,and  a complex conflict in Syria,which is likely to continue and unlikely to be successful.

Both the above comments are unbalanced and unfair to China.They rest on a dubious assumption that China cannot rise peacefully. It is important for Australia to find,already belatedly,an appropriate approach to both a rising China and to President Trump’s changed America.  We must avoid placing ourselves in a position in which regional countries,especially China and Indonesia,may continue to see us as part of  the “Anglosphere” nurturing racist and anti – Islamic attitudes.

I saw the first two hours of Putin’s interview with Oliver Stone last Saturday night on SBS.  It was indeed interesting.  Russia,is clearly not a new power to involve itself in Asia,and it is true that China could make better use of “soft power”in the future, especially in relation to its legitimate interests in the South China seas.

Putin argued in his interview that Russia was primarily reacting to anti-Russian attitudes being promoted in the United States.  The United States, he argued, needs an enemy to sustain a proper role for NATO.  China, of course, is not in a similar position in that it is not threatened by NATO and does not have NATO powers on its borders.  But China will feel a similar need to react to attacks on its activities in the South China seas, which have been promoted by the United States ,and  by Vietnam and The Philippines with the encouragement of America.

As a rising great power China will insist on exercising a major influence on developments close to its borders ,as great powers do , and especially in the South China seas.  It will argue that the United States ,as a superpower,had always insisted on maintaining its influence in distant but surrounding waters like Hawaii and the Florida Keys.

China may seem to many observers to have been too blunt in its assertion of its interests in neighbouring regions, but it is on strong grounds.  The United States has maintained in public during and Clinton and Obama Administrations, and now under Trump, that it is not seeking to “contain” China.  It is quite clear, however, that despite these ritual denials,U S activities are designed to contain China ,and it has had some success in influencing Japan and Australia to follow suit.

It is a fact, however, that no Australian shipping, which passes through the South China Sea, has ever been troubled or intercepted for over a century.  Also, Australia is not one of the Claimants involved in the South China seas territorial disputes and should avoid any provocative activities there.

Indonesia, which is not a Claimant State, has sought to host discussions between the five Claimant States and Taiwan.  I think it is in Australia’s  genuine  national interest that the Australian Government – and the Australian Labor Party In Opposition  – do not allow themselves  to be drawn into supporting an American policy,which has been defined as a ” pivot to Asia” or more recently as “rebalancing”, and which is,in reality, intended to contain China.

So, China should not be seen as the “new kid on the block”.  Rather China is the principal power and the major trading partner of every country, including Australia, in South East Asia and North Asia.

To conclude, successive Australian Governments have always argued that Australia should involve itself actively in what is now usually called the “Century of Asia”. It follows logically that Australia should focus much more decisively on the Asia Pacific region and,in so doing ,it should withdraw its forces from the highly complex and partisan conflicts in the Middle East in which we find ourselves with the U S on the same side as Saudi Arabia.

This would assist Australia to maintain a more  appropriate role in South East Asia, North Asia and the South West Pacific.  If we do not do so very soon we shall simply lag behind and see our potential to influence fading away to the disadvantage our grandchildren and future generations.

Richard Woolcott was  formerly Head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and President of the UN Security Council


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