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Chinese grand strategy and American hegemony

By Paul Monk - posted Tuesday, 14 August 2012

In his quarterly essay, Power Shift, Hugh White urged that Australia actively encourage the United States to accept the rise of Chinese power in East Asia and not oppose, but accommodate it. He wrote, "A Chinese challenge to American power in Asia is no longer a future possibility, but a current reality."

Australia began to accommodate a Chinese challenge, even in the 1990s, he argued.

The shift towards China was obscured by Howard's strong support for Bush after 9/11, especially on Iraq. Yet, Howard accepted China's growing leadership role in Asia, declined to criticise its military build-up, sought eagerly to join the East Asia Summit without US involvement and, until his last year in office, steered clear of American and Japanese efforts to draw Australia into a coalition of democracies designed to resist the Chinese challenge to American primacy.

He evidently did not check with John Howard himself and in conclusion to his memoir, Lazarus Rising, Howard wrote:

The United States will remain the most powerful nation in the world for many reasons, not least of which is that she is a conspicuous exemplar of liberal democracy.

We might pause to contemplate that one, of course.

Just as predictions 20 to 30 years ago that Japan would surpass America proved wrong, so it will be proven in the case of claims that China will outpace the United States. The growth of China has been good for China and good for the world. Not least Australia.

But she has challenges of demography and limitations on property rights which will baulk as ever larger problems in the future. China will grow old before she grows rich. Beyond this lies the ultimate Chinese denouement between her economic liberalism and political authoritarianism.

It isn't clear that either White or Howard is correct in his prognosis. What is clear is that we should be thinking of a number of possible scenarios and seeking to ensure, to the best of our ability, that we shall prove resilient in any one of them.

That is a far more demanding and intellectual and practical policy challenge than assuming that we know what the future will bring and setting our sights accordingly.


White went on to argue that the imperative in the coming decade is for America to recognise China as an equal and to agree that its own primacy in Asia is no longer acceptable. America, he suggested, should make way for China, "as Britain made way for America in the late 19th century."

It didn't of course. What Britain did in the late 19th century was invest in America, but its own Empire remained pre-eminent right through to the First World War, and even beyond. It was the costs of the First World War, but even more of the Second, that made it necessary for Britain to give way to America. You only have to look at the Lend-Lease Program and the way the Churchill traded away islands and bases and all sorts of things.

Right now, America has been investing in China but its Empire, if we agree to call it that, similarly remains pre-eminent for the time being. The question is what happens next?

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This article is an extract from a speech given by Paul Monk to After America, a conference organised by Port Phillip Publishing.

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About the Author

Paul Monk will chair a number of panel discussions at Future Summit 2006 covering international security. The over-riding theme for this years Future Summit is Re-inventing Australia in the Age of Asia.

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