Commentary | 31 August 2019

Australia must perfect the art of sizing up China

Neither the US nor China can dominate the other. That leaves an opening for smart middle powers that know their own strengths.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Neither the US nor China can dominate the other. That leaves an opening for smart middle powers that know their own strengths.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

"Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far," US president Theodore Roosevelt was fond of saying. The idea is to negotiate peacefully but also have strength in case things go wrong. Few could disagree that China’s rise has uncertain implications for war and peace in the 21st century. However, fears that Australia is unprepared to defend itself – or too soft – against an all-powerful China may do more harm than good. Prudent internationalism is in fact realpolitik born of our strengths and China’s weaknesses.

Any realist foreign policy begins by recognising the limits of what is feasible and what is desirable. There are three trends that emerge from my research on the Asia Power Index that are set to shape the region in decades to come.

First, under most scenarios, the United States will not be able to halt the narrowing power differential between itself and China. Nor, however, will Beijing simply grab the sceptre of unipolarity off the Americans. It is increasingly likely that neither power will be able to exert undisputed primacy in our region. China is a formidable military power and has weaponry that could assail US and allied bases in the region. However, that the superpowers now appear equally vulnerable in Asia may paradoxically lower the risk of a full-blown war and, for now at least, push great power rivalry below the threshold of conflict.

Second, globalisation will still involve the US and China, even if the two become less dependent on each other. China is too enmeshed in the international system to be contained. There are fewer ideological compulsions and economic advantage counts for more than during the last cold war. Rather than choosing sides, China pushback from countries in the region will be issue-specific, and reflect varying national interest calculations.

Third, far from being the hapless victims, middle powers will become more important in an age of great power competition. When two superpowers are gridlocked, the actions of the next rung of powers will constitute the marginal difference. Australia is more than capable of forging a favourable – and preferably peaceful – balance of power in the region, one that balances the sharpening ambitions of China. What is needed is a more sober articulation of the challenges confronting us.

Liberal MP Andrew Hastie recently placed Australia’s failure to take stock of China’s "mobile authoritarianism" on an equal footing to the failure of the French to contain German expansionism in 1940. Proponents of this school of thought are setting wheels in motion to act in a way that any cool assessment of China would advise against. It leads to a distorted view of Australia’s vulnerabilities and falsely equates prudent diplomacy with strategic apathy.

We are stronger than we give ourselves credit for. Roosevelt described his mantra as "the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis”. Our response to foreign influence offers a case in point. Australia’s democratic institutions have shown themselves capable of recognising and addressing foreign influence before it becomes an insurmountable threat.

A better historical analogy might be that Australia is operationalising its own version of the Monroe Doctrine in mounting a Pacific "step-up" to ensure we remain the partner of choice in our near abroad. Building a joint military base with the US on Manus Island will maximise the defensive advantages of Australia’s first island chain.

If there is a flaw in our strategy, however, it is that our fixation on great power rivalry comes at the expense of other issues of concern to our Pacific neighbours. Without Australian leadership on climate change, economic cooperation and inequality, China’s overtures on these issues will find greater traction. That would be ironic, given China’s pollution, protectionism and economic disparities at home.

Any policy recalibration also entails the risk of overcorrection. The Trump administration’s trade wars, for example, may cause irreversible damage to the rules-based trading system, not fix it. That would result in a world where size and economic power, not principles or rules, dictate the terms of engagement. Such a system will hurt smaller countries and likely favour China.

It would be equally mistaken to present our efforts to balance China as a struggle between Eastern totalitarian and Western democratic blocs. Not when the international coalition we must assemble will have to encompass a broad church of political systems.

We can be quietly confident that if we premise our foreign policy on pragmatic overlapping interests that China’s power will remain hobbled – not least due to a lack of trust among 11 of its neighbours with which it has boundary disputes or legacies of interstate conflict.

As China’s presence in contested spaces grows, so too do efforts to create a military and strategic counterweight in response. At the same time, a parochial, ethnocentric brand of authoritarian nationalism – as encapsulated by the China dream – is not proving a particularly exportable ideology.

In fact, President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian lurch betrays weakness as much as strength. The one-party state spends more on projecting power inwards, on internal security, than it does on projecting it outwards, on military spending.

We might learn from the strategic cultures of other middle powers with an interest in balancing China. Japan and Vietnam, for example, have far more proximate causes to fear China. Yet they have perfected the art of sizing up China correctly, balancing engagement with confrontation.

Carrying a big stick whilst privileging diplomacy and middle power cooperation is the only hard-headed approach to challenging and co-existing with an authoritarian China in a globalised system.