Christopher Pyne’s speech given to the Henry Jackson Society in London this year, ‘The Rise of China and the Future of US Asia-Pacific Policy – a View from Australia’, has been lauded by Greg Sheridan for its intellectual rigour and mixture of balance and boldness. Sheridan’s review, which appeared in The Australian in August, went on to compare Pyne’s speech favourably to speeches made on China by the shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop. This comment surely tongue in cheek.

Pyne began his speech, delivered in July, with a series of reasonable yet hardly astonishing comments about China’s economic growth driving trade links in Asia. He cited a poll by the Lowy Institute to show that Australians believe that China’s growth is a good thing. He also noted that China was unconstrained in engaging with the world’s most odious regimes (not exactly a point of difference with other great modern powers), referred to the ‘neo-mercantilist cast’ to its external activities (but failed to remark that Japan and Korea act similarly, or that this inclination broadly reflects the way in which East Asian societies have been organised since ancient times) and spoke briefly of its state-run banking system that allocates capital in response to political guidance. These statements could hardly be described as ‘bold’, or ‘intellectually rigorous’, but together broadly reflect Pyne’s liberal political values.

Chinese investment in Australia has received popular attention in Australia recently. Pyne rightly asserted that it is ‘entirely proper that state-owned enterprises are subject to proper scrutiny’. The number of Chinese investment applications would in fact be significantly higher if not for fear of rejection. A rejected application would be perceived as a loss of face, so there are compelling cultural reasons for the Chinese to withdraw if uncertain of the outcome. I am unsure how interested his audience would have been in this issue, but thus far it was an unspectacular but sound account, from an Australian perspective, of China’s rise.

Pyne’s oration was praised by Sheridan for its self-confidence and robust sense of liberal political values, yet as the speech progressed some troubling elements emerged. The self-confidence no doubt was abetted by the knowledge that many in Pyne’s audience would have shared his identification with the geo-strategic objectives of the United States, and complete reliance on Western historical and cultural contexts for understanding global political trends. European precedents were used forebodingly, such as the ‘painfully instructive’ example of twentieth-century Europe. Pyne unabashedly described the previous centuries’ European dominance in Asia as ‘the world we are all used to’. He could just as easily have said that it was ‘the only world I am comfortable with’.

Pyne’s statement that ‘China’s rise … along with its benefits brings significant challenges’ is axiomatic. Most significant changes are, after all, challenging. Complacency is certainly not an option. When referring to the ‘darker side’ of China’s rise, however, he embarks down a path that could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. The threat that China poses may well partly depend on how Australia and other nations respond.

Diplomacy not informed by an understanding of China’s historical, cultural and geo-political background—the origins of which precede the Vasco de Gama era by some two millennia in most cases—would bring a perilous future to Asia. Pyne is certainly not alone in harbouring such insecurities. According to a Lowy Poll conducted in March and April, 44 per cent of respondents believed that China will pose a military threat to Australia. It is difficult, however, to imagine a plausible scenario where this perceived threat would materialise into actual conflict.

The assertion that ‘China’s missile and sub-marine forces in particular have created a capacity for China to counter US military power in the Western Pacific’ echoed sentiments expressed in the 2009 Defence White Paper. But is it not entirely natural that China will continue to increase in its maritime power to the extent that its growing economy allows? The Opium Wars and subsequent humiliations during the Vasco de Gama era, not to mention the bitter experience of the Japanese invasion, have taught China the great importance of naval strength. There is nothing in China’s past that suggests that this investment in further developing its maritime strength will lead to an attack on the United States or its regional allies. While historical continuity provides no guarantee for the future, it does offer strong suggestions regarding the choices Chinese leaders are likely to make.

Ironically, the strength of Australia’s alliance with the United States provides a solid foundation to further develop our relationship with China. The first day of September marked the sixtieth anniversary of ANZUS—an alliance supported by 59 per cent of Australians, according to a recent Lowy Institute poll. When Sheridan wrote that Pyne’s speech was ‘the best speech made on China by any Australian outside of government this year’, he surely meant to say ‘any Australian politician outside of government’. The importance of the ANZUS alliance and its implications for Sino-Australian relations has been articulated with a greater depth of understanding by several academics this year. Sheridan referred to the work of the Lowy Institute’s Andrew Shearer, who argues that ANZUS gives Australia great confidence in its dealings in Asia. Interestingly, many of Pyne’s declarations (and in some cases phraseology) closely mirrored passages that subsequently appeared in a paper written by Shearer, entitled ‘Unchartered Waters: The US Alliance and Australia’s New Era of Strategic Uncertainty’.

Malcolm Cook, former program director for East Asia at the Lowy Institute and current dean of the school of International Studies at Flinders University, has also spoken with great understanding on this issue. Cook argues that the ANZUS alliance will facilitate stronger ties with China in much the same way that it allowed Australia to negotiate the 1957 Agreement on Commerce with Japan. He suggests that ANZUS continues to smooth the progress of Australia’s ever-deepening Asian engagement, with China today as it did with Japan in the postwar period. Many other East Asian states appear to be following suit.

South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Singapore are also developing closer security ties with the United States. Each has significant and increasing economic interests in China, as do other nations in the region. As the ANZUS alliance eases domestic concerns in Australia’s dealings with China, the strengthening of security ties with the United States in the region may provide a favourable domestic backdrop for a concert of powers that accommodates an emergent China.

Pyne’s dismissal of a concert of powers that could provide sustained peace and prosperity is probably due to his propensity to apply European historical precedents to an Asian context. While concerts of powers, based on a rough balance, served Europe well but for short periods only, they have in the past survived for centuries in Asia. Considering the ongoing rise of China, the only alternative to a concert of powers in this Asian century is confrontation.

A future concert of powers would require an adjustment in the geo-strategic goals of both the United States and China. It appears that the former, at least, has no intention of making such an adjustment any time soon. Despite Sheridan’s early misgivings over Obama’s 2008 election victory, he has since been delighted with the intensification of the United States’ Asian engagement. Despite a domestic fiscal context that will demand careful strategic prioritisation, the recent AUSMIN meeting suggests that the United States will seek to further strengthen its position in the region. Ongoing US engagement in Asia is in the region’s interest, but attempts to preserve its primacy in the face of a rising China is not.

If the United States is incapable of adjusting its geo-strategic goals, could key allies like Japan and Australia play a role in a developing a concert of powers in a region, which would also need to accommodate the aspirations of India, and perhaps Russia?

Even if it were seen to be in the national interest, this would not be a simple task. US postwar primacy in Asia is abetted by its extraordinary penetration into the domestic politics of its key regional allies. This is never more evident than in Japan. Many of Japan’s postwar political leaders benefitted from the ‘Marquat Fund’, a CIA-controlled fund named after the fund’s initial manager, US Major General William Marquat, used to finance the careers of hand-picked politicians to ensure that Japan would remain agreeable to US leadership. Exceptions have been rare, but it is plausible that the independently rich Yukio Hatoyama, whose grandfather on his mother’s side founded Bridgestone, was such an exception. As former prime minister (September 2009 to June 2010), Hatoyama attempted to achieve a paradigm change in terms of Japan’s foreign policy by talking about a cooperative approach to China in the context of an emerging ‘Asian Community’. He did not last long, and was replaced by Naoto Kan.

More than a month after Pyne’s speech, Yoshihiko Noda was elected by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan as the man to succeed Kan. It is unlikely that Noda will work towards a Sino-friendly Asian Community. He has in the past made a string of controversial comments about China’s military spending and has said that Japanese military leaders convicted at the international tribunal at the end of World War II were in fact not criminals. Such comments caused great angst not only in China but also Korea. It appears that Japan will continue to accommodate US objectives in the region, at least in the short term.

And what of Australia? Will Australia’s leaders draw a distinction between US engagement in Asia, which is in our national interest, and US primacy, which is unsustainable? This is unclear, but doubtful. Will China attempt to counter US influence in Australia? It was recently reported that China has sought, since Hu Jin-Tao’s visit to Australia in 2003, to use developing economic and political ties with Australia to dilute US influence. China will struggle to achieve the political penetration the United States enjoys, but may seek to exercise a level of influence through a deep investment in agricultural and mineral resources by state-owned companies. Such investments also reflect China’s food and energy needs.

The mutual distrust between each of the United States, Japan, Australia and China still exists despite an extraordinary forty-year period in which, with the exception of the Vietnamese overthrow of Pol Pot in Cambodia in 1978 and subsequent Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, no Asian power has attacked one of its neighbours. Such mistrust must be overcome. Prudence, rather than hostility, would serve the best interests of Australia, Japan and other nations of the Asian Pacific. Together with a reasonable readjustment of geo-strategic objectives of both the United States and China, an appropriate environment for a concert of powers could be achieved through careful middle-power diplomacy. Such a concert would maximise prosperity and minimise the risks to regional security. It would be naive to contemplate such a concert of powers in Asia that excludes the United States, but ignorance of China’s past and a confrontational approach to it in the future will equally do little to serve the national interest.

By Andrew Hunter

Andrew Hunter is secretary of the ACT branch of the Australian Fabians.

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