The decades of ASPI: straddling China and the United States
ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series reviews the work of ASPI since its inception in August 2001.
Dealing with China and the United States is a two-horsepower challenge.
One of Oz’s great realists, Owen Harries, captured the dilemma in a typical and vivid way at the ASPI Global Forces conference in 2006: “We’re going to have to learn to ride two horses simultaneously, this which is not the most comfortable of exploits. We’re going to have to cultivate a higher degree of complexity and ambiguity than in the past.
The tough turn has arrived.
Xi Jinping pushed into the South China Sea. China has become stronger and sharper. When Donald Trump took power, the United States swirled around. The United States still has options over its role in the Indo-Pacific, and Trump has offered an isolationist and “America First” view.
Canberra’s relationship with Beijing has turned frosty. Australia’s largest trading partner has imposed trade sanctions.
The journey between China and the United States has sparked recurring intellectual conflicts between ASPI’s first executive director, Hugh White, and the institute’s third executive director, Peter Jennings. “We’ve been talking about these things for decades,” observed White in one of his microphone games with Jennings.
The two faced the lectern for a debate in 2013 about the choice offered by White in his book. China’s Choice: Why America Should Share Power. Then they sat down in front of the ASPI camera again in 2014 for a comeback fight.
A multi-author discussion on The strategist has become an ASPI paper, To choose or not to choose: how to deal with China’s growing power and influence.
White defined his main difference from Jennings as a vision for the future of the regional order:
I think the order will change, in fact it is already changing. It’s simple. Asia has been stable since 1972 because China accepted the primacy of the United States as the foundation of the Asian order. China did so because it felt it was too weak to challenge it effectively. Now China thinks it is strong enough to challenge US rule, and it is.
The choice, White wrote, was between welcoming China or facing it as a rival. The more firmly China’s ambitions are fought, “the faster the strategic rivalry will intensify.”
Peter Jennings’ attack was that in the Asia-Pacific region, the Hugh White Road was not the route taken, as the fork in this road was either subordination or cremation:
[N]All over the civilized world, China Choice logic is gaining ground. Countries in the Asia-Pacific region persist in cooperating with each other; by wanting the United States to stay engaged; to build defense capabilities and refuse to sacrifice their own interests to give China more breathing space.
Dealing with China “involves American idealism and Australian pragmatism,” Ross Terrill wrote in Facing the dragon. Between the two extremes of Beijing and Washington seeing itself as a “threat” and a Sino-American condominium, Terrill hoped for a peaceful competition that offered Asia some leeway:
While some Australians may see China as the new America at the head of the Asia-Pacific, China takes a less dramatic view of Australia. We are useful but not indispensable to Beijing, and less important politically to it than China is to us. The shared experiences have not brought us to this moment of economic partnership, and the Chinese do not owe us any guiding loyalty.
China would be “Australia’s biggest foreign policy challenge in the 21st century,” David Hale said in 2014 in China’s new dream. He described a nightmare in Canberra if America’s budget problems forced it to cut defense spending and withdraw from the East Asian region.:
In such a scenario, Australia would cease to have a great allied power and would be more vulnerable to foreign aggression than at any time since 1942. The only Asian country with the long-term potential to challenge Chinese hegemony is ‘India. Australia should therefore cover its bets with the United States and China by pursuing better relations with New Delhi.
Examining ANZUS and the politics of alliances in Southeast Asia under President Trump, William Tow observed that the biggest obstacle to the credibility of the alliance was Washington’s tendency to oscillate between engagement and detachment from it. alliance, between internationalism and neo-isolationism. The real test of the Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” policy, Tow wrote, would be to overcome ASEAN and Australian concerns that Washington would be easily distracted.
The idea of ”Chimerica” - the union of China and America – had come to an end, John Lee said in 2019. Chimerica had relied on a global economic consensus that had passed. Instead, Lee described the rise of US-Chinese technology competition and strategic hypercompetition.
A long period of Chinese economic and trade malfeasance distorted the global economic system, Lee wrote, and the US’s discontent was irreversible:
Rising tensions are not a transitional phase in US-Chinese relations. China has long treated America as a global rival. The United States has finally accepted this reality, and this pessimistic conversion is deep and lasting. The administration’s turn against China may be the only Trump policy Democrats overwhelmingly support.
US voices for China’s containment were getting louder, Peter Varghese told an ASPI conference in 2019, and dangers loomed. The former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said there was nothing new in the United States’ determination to cling to strategic primacy. What was new was the call to block or thwart China, Varghese said:
Containing China is a political impasse. China is too entangled in the international system and too important for our region to be contained. And the idea that global technology supply chains can be split into a China-led system and a US-led system is both economic and geopolitical folly.
The United States is right to hold China to account. But it would be a mistake for the United States to cling to primacy by thwarting China. Those of us who value American leadership want the United States to hold onto it by lifting its game, not spoiling China’s.
China’s rise to power must be managed, not frustrated. It must be balanced and not contained. Building this balance and anchoring it in a new strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific is the great challenge of our time.
Taiwan had returned as a critical security issue for Australia, wrote Mark Harrison – a question framed by the U.S. alliance and a long-standing risk calculation for Australia-China relations. Australian thinking was based on pragmatism and realism, he said, but Beijing’s treatment of Taiwan challenged Australia’s medium and long-term interests.
The Chinese trade sanction that began in 2020 has reduced the value of Australia’s trade with China by 40% for almost all industries (only China’s huge appetite for iron ore has supported trade figures). Australian Ambassador to Beijing Graham Fletcher said China “has been exposed as unreliable as a trading partner and even vindictive.”
The idea of Australia having a “strategic partnership” with China has faded.
Canberra had accepted Beijing’s “strategic partnership” language under the Gillard Labor government in exchange for an annual summit. The Foreign Minister who made the deal in 2013, Bob Carr, wrote that the “strategic partnership” was “the abbreviated description of what they expect of us and what we will agree to in order to get them to ensure that we have annual executive meetings. ‘.
In February 2021, Prime Minister Scott Morrison bid farewell to the strategic partnership:
China’s outlook and the nature of China’s external engagement, both in our region and in the world, have changed since the formation of our comprehensive strategic partnership and for longer than that, certainly over the decades. that have preceded so far. We cannot pretend that things are as they were. The world has changed.
Today, Beijing does not take phone calls from Australian leaders.
Peter Jennings offered a series of conclusions about the icy relationship:
- We are going to experience this roller coaster ride for years to come: “National positions are hardening. Neither Beijing nor Canberra will back down and the prospects for “negotiation” are nil given China’s “wolf warrior” mania. “
- The Morrison government seemed increasingly confident in its position: “The language used on relations with China is cautious but is becoming clearer and more definitive. There is something to be said for knowing when your back is hard against a strategic wall.
- The sharp and menacing rhetoric of the Chinese Embassy in Canberra and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing was counterproductive: “Beijing’s usual Australian support base has largely collapsed and public opinion has collapsed. massively turned against the People’s Republic “.
- Beyond the bilateral struggle with China, a positive international agenda awaited Australia: “[O]Our ability to build on strong alliances and deep friendships with like-minded democracies is why we will win against Beijing. ‘
Scott Morrison’s observation on Australia-China relations was also true for the United States and China: “We cannot pretend that things are as they were. The world has changed.
From the book on the first 20 years of the institute: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001-2021.