July 14, 2022

International politics

Five steps to getting real about China

By Hugh White
Image of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (right) and Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong in Jakarta, Indonesia, June 6, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (right) and Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong in Jakarta, Indonesia, June 6, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

The Albanese government’s duty, and its opportunity, is to recast Australia’s relationship with China

How do we get out of this mess?

The first step is to get real about the situation we face. We need to stop underestimating China’s power and resolve, and overestimating America’s, because a correct assessment of their relative positions is essential to understanding what is happening in Asia and how we can best respond. We have been getting these things wrong for too long. Like the rest of the West, we have eagerly believed the countless predictions that China’s economic achievement was about to collapse or that its political system was about to implode. We have been equally eager to believe that under some future leadership China will abandon its ambitions. Of course these things could happen, but they haven’t yet, and we would be unwise to bet that they will. We should by now have learnt that the only prudent basis for our policy is to accept that China will not collapse and its ambitions will not be abandoned. The China we see now is the China we must learn to live with.

Likewise, we have been too eager to accept, in the face of clear evidence, the comfortable consensus that America’s position in Asia is invulnerable, that its armed forces are unbeatable and that its commitment to Asia is unshakable. We will never start to build ourselves a secure place in the new Asia until we banish these illusions. We need to get real, too, about how the rest of our region sees these issues. Far from being in the vanguard of a region united in its determination to resist China’s ambition at all costs, we are an outlier in a region which is quietly getting on with the difficult business of adjusting to the new realities they seem to understand so much better than we do. We will not do better until we rid ourselves of the assumption – voiced recently, for example, by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton – that doubts about America’s ability to prevail in Asia can only spring from deep-seated anti-Americanism. That lazy slur has been a barrier to serious thinking and debate for too long.

The second step is to build a more balanced and realistic view of China. Looking back, we may judge that the highly coloured and sometimes absurdly lurid description of China’s threat to our sovereignty and way of life has served a useful purpose. It helped in overturning the complacent view – exemplified by Tony Abbott’s praise of Xi Jinping as a champion of democracy in 2014 – that China posed no challenge to the Asian order or Australia’s interests. But predictably, things have now swung too far the other way. It is clear why this happened: we saw the same thing in the exaggerated threats of terrorism after September 11. Once a rival or a threat is identified, it becomes all too easy to keep talking it up, and harder and harder to regain a sense of proportion. But as we found with the War on Terror, getting threats out of proportion leads to costly mistakes.

Of course, there is much we do not know and cannot know about how China’s power and ambitions will develop. We do not know what kind of hegemon it will become, how far it will try to interfere in our internal affairs and how ruthless it will be in getting its way. It can seem safest in the face of these uncertainties to assume the worst and respond to China as if it were another Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany. But worst cases do not always make for the best policy. On the contrary, they can lead to just the kind of costly mistakes we made in the War on Terror – but this time the costs could be quite literally catastrophic. A better approach is to recognise the range of possible outcomes and develop our policy accordingly. We should not rule out the worst cases, and we should prepare to respond to them if they occur. But if we base our policy entirely on the worst case – China as a ruthless and bitter enemy with which we cannot do business – then we have a good chance of that being what actually happens. So we should also recognise the clear possibility that China will turn out to be a regional hegemon we can learn to live with – if never to like much, let alone love – and build a policy towards that. In the simplest terms, this might mean that our defence policy should focus on the worst case and our diplomacy should focus on the better possibilities. But first we need to jettison the overhyped threats that dominate our view of China at present.

In doing that, it helps to keep China’s power in proportion. Much of our debate sees China in two quite contradictory ways. On the one hand, it is a future global hegemon that threatens to take over the world and remake it according to the Chinese Communist Party’s wishes. But at the same time, it is seen to be weaker and more fragile than it seems, unable to dominate even its own backyard and thus easy to deter or defeat. The reality we must adapt to is midway between these equally implausible extremes – a China strong enough to dominate our region, but not to rule the world.

The third step is to think seriously about war – major war between America and China – because the danger is real. It is clear from the way that political leaders and some senior officials have spoken about the prospect of war that they do not take it nearly as seriously as they should. One must suppose that they can scarcely imagine what war between nuclear-armed powers would be like – how it would be fought, how it would end, who would win, and under what circumstances and for what ends it would be right to fight. Only when these things are understood can we make properly informed decisions about when and why we think such a war should be fought, and how hard we should work to avoid it. These are tough questions to answer, but the more clearly we understand what war would mean, the clearer the answers become. We are a long way from that kind of conversation in Australia today.

The fourth step is to talk to America about its future in Asia, and our role in sustaining it. That means doing more than just nodding along enthusiastically while our friends in Washington say their piece about how committed they are to staying the course. It means pressing them hard – harder than they seem to have pressed themselves – to explain what they are really trying to achieve and how they expect to achieve it. And if it turns out that they have no good answers, then we need to urge them, for their good as well as ours, to think again. We need to make it crystal clear to them that they cannot expect Australia’s support unless we are convinced that they have clear objectives and a realistic chance of achieving them at a cost and risk the American people are able and willing to bear over the long term.

This would be a most difficult conversation, because America is in a very difficult position. A lot has been said in recent years about how US–China relations might fall into the “Thucydides Trap”. This is the idea that war is inevitable when a rising power challenges an established power for preponderance in the international system – their rivalry traps them in a path to war they cannot escape. History gives a lot of support to the theory, because it has been so rare for an established great power to make way for a rising rival without a fight. The English scholar Martin Wight expressed this pithily in 1946 when he wrote, “Great power status is lost, as it is won, by violence. A great power does not die in its bed.” But there are no iron laws of history, because what happens is always subject to some degree to human choice. Great powers have seldom in the past chosen to step back from a pinnacle of influence rather than go to war, but going to war is different now because of nuclear weapons. Ultimately, perhaps, that is why the Soviet Union did step back at the end of the Cold War. And ultimately the threat of nuclear war will convince the United States, if anything does, to step back from the contest with China over primacy in East Asia. That must be the hard advice that Australia offers Washington. If it cannot retain its position in Asia without running a serious risk of nuclear war, then it had better withdraw quickly and gracefully, because no one’s interests are served by the alternative.

The fifth step in getting real is to recast our diplomacy in Asia. We should talk to India not just as a Quad partner and a counterbalance to China but as a great power with its own great-power objectives. We should try to understand the complexities of Japan’s attitudes to China and options for dealing with it. We should stop telling our South-East Asian neighbours that US primacy is the only path to regional order and start listening to them about how they see China’s and India’s rises and how they are dealing with them. We should stop telling our South Pacific neighbours to keep their distance from China and start working hard to become a more rewarding partner ourselves. And we should take the trouble to chat to New Zealand’s leaders as well, because they seem to have done a much better job of managing China than we have. They have stood up to China where it matters without destroying their relationship, by avoiding point-scoring provocations and keeping a prudent distance from Washington’s containment policies. They might have something to teach us.

And sixth, obviously, we have to start talking to China. This will not be easy, but there is no alternative. It will not work to insist – as both sides of politics do – that Beijing must take the steps required to get us back into the room together, because fundamentally they are more important to us than we are to them. So we should respond to such openings as Beijing offers – for example, the clear efforts by China’s current ambassador to restore some dialogue. It is a sign of weakness to refuse to talk.

But before we start talking seriously to China, or indeed to anyone else, we need to a conversation among ourselves – a national conversation – about how Australia should respond to the biggest shift in our international environment since Europeans settled on this continent. That is the conversation that our political leaders have been ducking for years, first by denying that we had any choices to make, and then by asserting that the only choice we could possibly make is to back America in whatever it decides to do. Now it’s time to start talking about the real choices we have to make.

That is a task for political leaders, and the way for them to begin is to set out in plain terms the essentials of our situation. They can be easily summarised. The rise of China, of India and in time of Indonesia are among the biggest geopolitical shifts in history, and they will not be reversed. As a result, the strategic order in Asia which frames Australia’s place in the world has already changed and the old order will not return. We know for sure that India and China will play a greater role in this new order than any other countries, and we have to learn to live with them and work with them. This will be very different from the orders we have known and it will be hard to adjust. But there is no sense in exaggerating the threats we face. We should continue to hope that America will play a substantial role in Asia’s new order, but we should not simply rely on America to keep Asia safe for us in future. We will have to build our own relationships with the new great powers of Asia and find new ways to work with our many old friends among Asia’s smaller and middle powers to promote the interests we share. Above all, we must do whatever we can to ensure that the transition to a new order happens peacefully, because we must be under no illusion that war would solve anything.

It should not be too hard to draft a speech along these lines, if we could only find a political leader willing to deliver it.

This task is Labor’s duty, and its opportunity, as it takes power. It is a task for which Labor should be well fitted by its history. Curtin’s statesmanship in war, Evatt’s acerbic creativity in shaping the postwar order, Calwell’s principled and perceptive opposition to Vietnam, Whitlam’s far-sighted and courageous opening to China, Hawke and Keating’s inspired realisation of Australia’s Asian future, Gareth Evans’ mastery of principled, practical diplomacy. There is a lot to build on here.


This is an edited extract of Hugh White’s Quarterly Essay, Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s Unthinking Alliance with America.

Hugh White

Hugh White is an emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

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