Friday, August 24, 2012

If Australia’s leaders get closer to China, they might learn what it really thinks

FLATTERY can be nice, especially for an ancient civilisation still getting over what it perceives as a century of humiliation by Western barbarians, but China is starting to show alarm at the new power and prestige being attributed to it.

In recent weeks Beijing has started to hose down the idea that it is challenging the US in strategic power, an idea strongly pushed in the new book The China Choice by the former Australian defence official Hugh White.

Its top officials are also extremely nervous that Chinese nationalist hotheads could escalate disputes with Japan and other neighbours over outlying islands, after protests turned into rioting in Chinese cities last weekend.

In recent weeks, a ''top secret'' document on Chinese nuclear strategy appears to have been widely leaked to American and other analysts, reaffirming that China is sticking to a minimal number of nuclear weapons sufficient to guarantee a ''second strike capability'' and that it still abides by a ''no first use'' policy.

While visiting the University of Sydney this week, China's former ambassador to Canberra and Washington Zhou Wenzhong stressed that China felt it was prospering from free trade in Asia, that it saw an ''interdependence'' with the US and other powers, and still adhered to the late leader Deng Xiaoping's emphasis on economic development.

White's book is what the French might call a jeu d'esprit, a mind-game, putting the proposition that the US shortly faces a stark choice: join a never-ending and fruitless arms race with China in the western Pacific; allow the Chinese to steadily eclipse its power; or come to a grand bargain to share power.

The author advocates the third course, suggesting the US, China, Japan and India agree on a peaceful regime for Asia, on the lines of the Concert of Europe between the great powers of the 19th century after the defeat of Napoleon.

There are many problems with White's thesis. He sees an important moment when the Chinese economy grows bigger than that of the US in absolute terms, which it is bound to do sooner (he thinks) or later, even if the difference in gross domestic product growth rates narrows and the faster-breeding Americans catch up a fair bit in population size.

Wealth is power, he insists. But it will be a long time before the Chinese are as wealthy as Americans. Some demographers say they will get old first. And the American knowledge advantage may persist long after China's GDP becomes the world's biggest.

Another problem is White's assertion that the US has already lost ''sea control'' in the waters close to China, thanks to new missiles and submarines that make it too risky for US aircraft carriers to sail there. He suggests the US could not now defend Taiwan.

But tactics and defences have evolved as missile capabilities grow. And China's reported program to develop a ''carrier-buster'' ballistic missile is still an unproven concept.

Nor is the Concert of Europe all that encouraging. It was reached between European states with similar political systems and values. Yet there was still war: in the Crimea in 1854, between France and Prussia in 1870-71, the ''Great Game'' between Britain and Russia in central Asia and in the scramble for Africa. And it all led to World War I.

Even so, if White's jeu d'esprit led to greater dialogue and co-operation with China it would be valuable. But instead it has probably added to a sense of panic about its rise, and strengthened resolve to stand up to the Chinese.

His suggestion that Canberra should try to persuade its big US ally to cut a deal with China and save us a lot of conflict is not gaining much traction.

The two sides of Australian politics are vying to show who is more devoted to the US in strategic power, so much so that many foreign policy figures are uncomfortable. They feel Australia should be showing more independence in the ''Asian century''. They were dismayed that the new American ''pivot'' into Asia was announced in the Australian Parliament, and feel that the new US military presence in Australia, notably the marine deployment to Darwin, has been presented in a misleading way to the public.

A new report on the US force posture in the Asia-Pacific by Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, commissioned by the Pentagon, certainly portrays it as more than regular training.

The study describes it as the ''rotational presence'' of a 2500-strong Marine Air-Ground Task Force, augmented with ships and aircraft, that is part of a plan to redistribute the four such marine task forces in the western Pacific away from the present concentration in Okinawa, where they are vulnerable to Chinese weapons. The four task forces - in Okinawa, Hawaii, Guam and Australia - could be quickly brought together in case of military crisis.

China doesn't help itself by its lack of transparency, and the uncertain status of what it does put out. Is the leaked document about nuclear forces a genuine message or disinformation to encourage the US and Russia to cut back their arsenals? Are articles suggesting China abandon ''no first use'' in case of massive US conventional attack just a jeu d'esprit by reckless young army officers keen to get noticed, or part of a more considered shift?

It is unfortunate that our leaders no longer dare to be seen as close to China. We might be more confident about the answers to such questions, and less inclined to jump at bogymen.

By Hamish McDonald Asia-Pacific editor, Sydney Morning Herald

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