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Should Australia moderate between the US and China?

By John Lee - posted Tuesday, 18 November 2008


Ever since the election of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, editorials in China’s state-sponsored media have been increasingly pushing the line that Australia should play the role of a “bridge” between China and the US. With the rise of Barack Obama in America rather than the more bellicose John McCain, these calls will get louder. For a Labor government trying to ramp up Australian middle power activism, the Chinese entreaty will flatter and entice. Accept the compliment, if we must, but Australia should politely decline the role.

Despite enormous progress in US-China relations from Bill Clinton’s second term onwards, China has embarked on a hitherto peaceful form of strategic competition with the US. In many respects, and with good reason, China remains an insecure rising power rather than a contented one.

To its north and southwest, relations with Russia and India are respectively stable but still fragile. To its east and southeast, it is “encircled” by American allies such as Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand. Although Chinese relations with many of these countries have improved substantially, they still welcome American military primacy and might. Importantly, the American navy controls the vital Malacca Strait shipping lanes through which almost a third of the world’s traded goods pass through. Finally, the US also patrols the South China Sea - a body of water China still claims as its “historic waters”.

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Despite being deeply integrated into the global economy and being responsible for almost a quarter of global growth in 2007, China stills sees itself as an “outsider” in an American-led global liberal order. Its top strategic thinkers overwhelmingly believe that America and its democratic allies are intolerant of China’s authoritarian system and that they will become more wary as China rises. Beijing listened with alarm to John McCain’s suggestion of a League of Democracies encompassing powers such as the US, Japan and India. With an Obama administration, Beijing still believes that autocracies will be tolerated rather than welcomed into the existing order.

In many respects, China remains a weak country. It’s GDP per capita is still outside the world’s top 100. There are severe social and environmental dislocations arising out of its growth at all costs strategy. By its own reckoning, it still needs two to three more decades of double digit growth until it becomes a “moderately prosperous country”.

Beijing recognises that to grow its economy, it needs the public goods and stability that American power provides. It also knows that it will not be in a position to challenge American hard power for several decades. China has wisely identified “peace and development” as in its best interests. Combined with tireless diplomacy throughout the region, Beijing has put forward a convincing argument that it is intent on a “peaceful rise” in order to refute the “China threat” thesis.

Yet, this does not mean that China has been a passive power. On the contrary, it has been an enormously creative, ambitious, and proactive power in the region. While avoiding overt confrontation with America, China has used a variety of tactics to circumvent, bind, and reduce American power and influence.

In particular, Beijing uses multilateralism as a tool to bind and dilute American power in a number of ways. For example, its advocacy of “multilateralism” and the “democratisation of international relations” in security matters means that states should make decisions only after they have been agreed upon via a multilateral process.

This is obviously to China’s advantage, since any process that recognises the existence of regional powers having an equal say in international affairs reduces the advantage of the (American) hegemony. When China talks about “multilateralism,” it really seeks to promote a de facto “multipolarity” by gathering allies and restricting US preeminence and freedom of action.

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China has also proposed new security structures and concepts that are designed to undercut the influence of the US over allies. For example, China continually attempts to promote ASEAN+3 (which includes China, Japan, and South Korea but excludes America) as the primary regional security forum, and was an enthusiastic backer of the East Asian Summit (which also excluded America) as the preeminent regional forum. It tried to sell its “New Security Concept” (NSC) to ASEAN, which set out a vision emphasising “Asian values” as well as co-operative security and dialogue in contrast to American primacy.

When it comes to Washington, Beijing sees the struggle for influence as very much a zero sum. The “strategic competition” rather than “strategic cooperation” that is taking place between Beijing and Washington means that Canberra - with limited influence and resources - will find it difficult to play the role of bridge without inadvertently maneuvering ourself between a rock and a hard place. Middle power activism is one thing but over-estimating our capabilities and disappointing both our closest ally and largest trading partner would be a strategic and diplomatic debacle.

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First published in The Canberra Times on November 13, 2008. Dr john Lee’s report “China’s Insecurity and Search for Power”, is available on the CIS website.



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About the Author

Dr John Lee is a foreign policy visiting fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and also Managing Director of research & conferences company L21. Dr Lee has a Masters and Doctorate from University of Oxford. His most recent book was Will China Fail?, released in late 2007.

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