As China rises, must Australia tremble?
May 26th 2011 | from the print edition
BACK IN THE days of the tyranny of distance, the primal terror of Australians was the fear of abandonment. During the country’s first few decades it looked for its security to Britain, a friendly but far-off power. After Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, Britain abandoned its former colony. Fortunately, America took its place and has been guaranteeing Australia’s security ever since. Even so, Australia is once again feeling nervous about finding itself alone, prompted by three changes. The first is the growing economic power of China, followed closely by its growing political and military power. The second is that America’s role as the single pole of a unipolar world is inevitably coming to an end. And third, Australia’s new pattern of trade means that for the first time its main commercial partner, China, is not a strategic ally. None of this involves an immediate threat to Australians, but it makes life more complicated.
Not yet on their doorstep. For years Australia was neurotically concerned about Indonesia, a huge neighbour that has sometimes looked violent or unstable but now seems benign, democratic and rather successful. Smaller neighbours, however, are more worrying. In Papua New Guinea, for example, administered by Australia from 1906 to 1973, many of the social indicators are heading down and it is becoming increasingly violent. Some of the tiny island states that speckle the map of the Pacific also make uncomfortable neighbours. Fiji has coups, the Solomons has scandals, and almost all have struggling economies. Since poverty and size make them potentially easy to influence, they need care and attention.
The wider region is the larger worry, partly because it encompasses so many poor, autocratic or unstable countries, partly because Australia does not fit in very comfortably. It has never really tried to pass itself off as an Asian country, nor been accepted as such. Instead, it has made itself seem less out of place by joining, and sometimes helping to create, various regional groups. Many of these are fine as far as they go, but some accept too many nasty members (such as Myanmar) to allow useful agreement, and even the more discriminating clubs have their tensions. Mr Rudd, as prime minister, worked hard to promote the creation of an Asia-Pacific Community in which everything from security, trade and terrorism to energy, disease and natural disasters would be discussed, filling a large gap in the other arrangements. It may prove useful if it comes off.
The political task, though, has to some extent been taken over by the G20, in whose creation Mr Rudd played a role, helping to ensure that it was not confined to just 14 countries. This is the natural forum for a middle-ranking power, such as Australia, with global as well as regional interests. Australia, remember, has sent its troops to fight in wars from South Africa to Vietnam. Nowadays they go to Iraq and Afghanistan. It is clearly right that it should have a place among democracies of a certain economic weight, such as Canada, Mexico, South Korea and Turkey.
Where Oz still counts
In truth, Australia is a bigger power than it sometimes believes. Out of the world’s 193 sovereign states, it ranks sixth in land area, 13th in economic production, 14th in defence spending and 50th in population. It will be overtaken in some of these categories because its population will stay relatively small, but for the time being it still carries some weight.
That is already apparent in its foreign-aid budget, which the Howard government doubled and the current government says it will double again, bringing it to 0.5% of GDP by 2015. And no longer will most of it be spent regionally; in future it will be a global programme. But America may also make increased demands on Australia that will call for higher spending on defence.
The reason, of course, will be China, which has become a pushy maritime power. Its actions, including the commissioning this year of its first aircraft-carrier, make that plain. Less clear is whether it will want to challenge the United States at some point for maritime primacy in and around the Pacific. Some pessimists see that as inevitable for a world power in the making. More optimistic analysts think China will stay preoccupied with economic development at home for at least two or three decades. Both groups agree, however, that a problem, if mishandled, could escalate, just as it did in 1995-96, when China was “testing” missiles and America sailed a carrier battle-group through the Taiwan Strait.
Australia, for its part, has to make guesses about America’s future behaviour as well as China’s. Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at Australian National University, believes that, faced with China’s growing power, America can either withdraw from Asia, share power with China or compete for primacy. He worries about America’s resoluteness in a long competition with China, already sees a “drift to antagonism” and fears it could lead to a war that might turn nuclear. For Australia, he thinks, the best outcome would be for America to relinquish primacy and share power with China and other countries in a “concert of Asia”.
Mr White’s thesis, put forward in a recent issue of Quarterly Essay, has caused some debate in Australia, but few people there see the United States wanting to carve up Asia with China. Rather, they say, the signs are that it will simply re-engage and compete. The hope is that China’s main military aim is to have control of the waters round its coasts, and thus to keep other countries away from its maritime borders. So long as that does not involve directly challenging America for primacy, both countries can continue to compete and co-operate.
Remember the Dardanelles
America is popular in Australia, and vice versa. When Ms Gillard delivered a glutinous speech to a joint session of Congress in March, she got six standing ovations. No big changes seem likely, but Australia is rich these days and America is feeling poor. It may be asking the Aussies for help before long, perhaps even suggesting it should place some forces alongside America’s in somewhere like Guam, from which Uncle Sam can show who’s boss in the Pacific. Australia might not welcome this: it wants to be friends with both big powers.
The Aussies’ attitude to China remains tentative. Most Australians see relations as cordial—Ms Gillard made a successful visit to Beijing last month—but a poll for the Lowy Institute last month suggested almost half believe China will become a military threat within 20 years. Many worry about the extent of Chinese investment; although any proposal above a certain size is automatically reviewed by the authorities, the Lowy poll showed that 57% thought the government allowed too much of it. But Colin Barnett, the premier of Western Australia, where all resources seem magnetically drawn to China, is unconcerned. He says he welcomed 85 delegations from China last year and spends more time there than he does in Canberra.
澳洲人对于中国的态度依旧犹豫不决。在大部分澳大利亚人看来，澳中关系热情真诚——上个月，吉拉德对北京进行了一次成功的访问，不过罗维研究所(Lowy Institute)上月的一次民意调查却显示，将近半数的受访者相信中国将会在20年内成为一大军事威胁。许多人对于中国投资的幅度感到担忧：尽管任何超过一定规模的投资提案都将自动交由当局复审，但罗维调查依旧显示，有57%的受访者认为政府允许的中国投资过多。不过西澳大利亚州州长科林•巴尼特(Colin Barnett)对此却并没有放在心上，该州所有的资源似乎都像受到磁力吸引一般流向了中国。巴尼特表示，去年他迎接了85个来自中国的代表团，而他在中国待的时间比他在堪培拉的时间还要长。