A superpower in transition

Thursday, Mar 12, 2020, 03:20 AM | Source: Pursuit

Michael Wesley

In 1978, China abandoned its role as the epicentre of world revolution and embarked on emulating the great powers that had brought it, humiliatingly, to its knees.

It took just over two decades for China’s economy to eclipse all others in trade and manufacturing, and all except the United States’ in absolute size.

China’s economy has become a leader after a standing start two decades ago. Picture: Wolfram K/Pexels

It joined regional institutions warily, fearing America and its allies would dictate proceedings, but soon found institutions such as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) highly effective in helping to sell reassuring messages about the benefits of engaging with its booming economy.

Yet rather than accepting a role akin to Japan’s – economically successful but unthreatening to the American-led system of alliances and free trade – China engaged in regular confrontations from the mid-1990s.

Its military scale-up was aimed at removing the US Navy’s freedom to impose stability in the Western Pacific without contest.

China also began a campaign to break US alliances, using its status as the number-one trading partner for most Asia-Pacific economies to induce greater independence from Washington.

Between 2012 and 2016, Beijing embarked on a series of chess-like moves in the South China Sea and the East China Sea designed to raise doubts about US credibility as an ally.

President Obama’s announcement of a “pivot” to the Pacific in 2011 had the opposite of its intended effect, as regional governments questioned whether the US even had the capacity to stare down China’s challenge.

The then US President Barack Obama greets Australian troops after announcing a US “pivot” to the Pacific. Picture: Corporal Melina Mancuso, 1st Joint Public Affairs Unit, Department of Defence

The US has relied more on its allies, as well as other regional powers such as India and Vietnam, for ballast in its response, at a time when each of these powers harbours growing doubts about US capacity and resolve.

This is the case even in Australia.

Despite the rhetoric of convergent values and unprecedented intimacy, Canberra has spent much of the past decade quietly building its defence relationships with other Asian states, such as Singapore and Japan.

Its championing of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ in its most recent Defence and Foreign Policy white papers is code for hope that India will play a role in balancing China’s rise.

Not so long ago, Australia’s leaders spoke confidently of not having to choose between the US and China. But the national mood has shifted sharply.

Now there is a pervasive dread over almost every strand of our engagement with China.

As Australian strategist Paul Dibb has pointed out, China’s bases in the South China Sea have put Australia within bombing range of potentially hostile forces for the first time since the Pacific War.

Australia has gravitated closer to the US, yet the alliance no longer provides us with the assurance and confidence in dealing with China it once did.

An F-35B Lightning II fighter taking off in the Gulf of Thailand during Cobra Gold, the largest theatre security cooperation exercise in the Indo-Pacific region. Picture: US Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Vance Hand, US Department of Defence

This coincides with a US president who is openly disparaging of allies and willing to engage with rivals and rogue states.

Even as Australia’s neighbours have transcended their internal instabilities to begin investing heavily in their defence, Australia has been spending lavishly on its internal security and defence while running down its diplomatic resources and slashing aid.

Donald Trump has jettisoned his predecessors’ careful approach of balancing economics with geopolitics in relation to China. But he is not entirely retreating from Asia, where America has much to gain, and too much to lose if it withdraws.

Trump is trying to establish a more sustainable domestic political basis for an ongoing role in the Pacific, seeking to force allies to pay more for their defence collaborations and to reduce US trade deficits to counter perceptions that Washington is being exploited.

And the US is looking to return to its traditional strategy in Asia: not seeking supremacy, but to deny it to any other power.

The Pentagon and Washington’s think tanks are discussing how to counter China’s threat to the forward presence of the US Navy.

The US is looking to disperse bases across the Indo-Pacific in places such as Singapore, Australia and the island of Diego Garcia, and to use missiles and submarines to threaten Chinese operations.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) shakes hands with Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele. Picture: Getty Images

Australia is vital to this new approach, providing depth and distance to efforts to deny China control over the Western Pacific.

Australia’s geography has assumed greater importance in US calculations, and it has therefore become of greater interest to China.

The challenge of Asia has in fact returned in emphatic form. China has a capacity to directly threaten Australia and the US, as well as setting the terms of their engagement with, or disengagement from, Asia.

Beijing’s forms of leverage vary, and its intentions are opaque.

The states of the Pacific archipelago between China and Australia sit uncertainly on a spectrum between alarm and pragmatism, worried about Beijing’s intentions but accepting the need to build sustainable relationships. Several are politically unstable and open to external influence, and orientation towards Beijing is becoming a key schism in domestic politics.

Adding to the uncertainty is a US president who has made unpredictability central to his approach to international affairs.

All of these factors make a sudden realignment of regional relations possible.

In short order, Australia and the US could find Asia dominated by an antagonistic great power, to which the region aligns strategically and economically, leaving them without commercial or diplomatic access and influence – the shared interests that have been the bedrock of the alliance.

Australia has hosted joint intelligence facilities but not US bases. Picture: Getty Images

This scale of challenge tests the alliance as never before. The US expects more of Australia.

Until now, Australia has hosted joint intelligence facilities but not US bases; allowing the US to operate bombers and missiles from Australian soil would knit us more tightly to US strategy in Asia.

This, along with deepening interoperability of Australian and US forces, would remove much of the discretion the ANZUS Treaty permits.

As the US has become more reliant on Australia, we should worry that an increasingly confrontational America will provoke a conflict with China not in Australia’s or its neighbours’ interests.

Yet Australia’s continual invoking of loyalty and sacrifice has given the alliance a marriage-like status, in which adherence to our ally’s cause has become a test of national character.

We have lost sight of the limited-liability nature of the alliance at a time when this quality is more necessary than ever.

As the US needs Australia more, we have the chance – and the obligation – to shape the alliance in our interests. Instead, we have become less questioning and more compliant with each presidential tweet.

This is an extract from Professor Michael Wesley’s essay “Beijing Calling” in the latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs - Can We Trust America?

Banner image: Getty Images

University of Melbourne Researchers