America and China: strategic choices in the Asian Century

Author: Hugh White, ANU

Four months ago, as Australia’s parliamentarians rose to give President Barack Obama a standing ovation, it seemed they had already decided how best to navigate the profound strategic changes that must inevitably flow from the shift in relative economic weight from West to East.

Obama laid out in the starkest terms yet his determination that America will resist China’s challenge to US leadership in Asia, using all the elements of its power — including military force — to perpetuate a future for Asia framed by American values and interests. The Parliament’s applause, and the simultaneous announcement that Australia would host more US forces, seemed to show that Australians had made up their minds to back Obama’s forthright policy to the hilt.

That impression would be wrong. In fact, Obama’s speech was a wakeup call to Australians, signalling that a debate needs to be had on these issues, because some very big decisions need to be made.

Until recently, most Australians have been content to assume that Asia’s economic transformation, so central to Australia’s prosperity, had no implications whatsoever for the region’s strategic order or Australia’s strategic policy. They imagined that even as China’s economy overtakes America’s, China will either be happy to accept American leadership, or too weak to challenge it. They assumed therefore that American primacy would remain forever unchallenged and unchallengeable, and that Australia faced very few, if any, pressing decisions about this.

President Obama’s speech punctured this blithe optimism, confronting Australian leaders with the uncomfortable reality that Americans really do see China as their major strategic rival, and that rivalry between them is escalating fast. Suddenly it became much clearer that Australia will have to make some choices after all.

But there were some in Parliament listening to Obama that day who had already begun to understand the way that Asia’s economic transformation is forcing Australia to reconsider its strategic position. Earlier last year, several Opposition front-benchers discussed how China’s rise would affect the Asian order and Australia’s choices throughout a number of speeches, and Malcolm Turnbull offered a very substantial analysis and critique of the prevailing orthodoxy.

Most strikingly of all, Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave a major speech just a few weeks before Obama’s arrival in which she, too, acknowledged that the historic shift in economic weight to Asia has strategic consequences. Gillard conceded that Australia has choices to make about what kind of new strategic order would suit Australia best, and spoke of what the country’s leaders could do to help bring it about. Moreover, she announced the preparation of a white paper, Australia in the Asian Century, to explore these issues.

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has also been exploring these questions. Since Obama’s visit he has retuned to the issue in a series of speeches, making a cogent and forceful case for a comprehensive re-thinking of Asia’s future order, away from the Pax Americana of the past and toward a ‘Pax Pacifica’. He did not say much about what the Pax Pacifica should look like, but clearly he believes it should accommodate China’s ‘legitimate aspirations’.

All this is a long way from President Obama’s clarion call to perpetuate the Pax Americana at any cost. So it seems that, notwithstanding the rapturous reception Obama received, Australians have started to rethink their strategic future, and ask searching questions about the choices they face.

The scene is now set for a debate in Australia about Asia’s strategic future and Australia’s place in it, which may prove to be as momentous as any before in the country’s history. If that debate is to be productive, it should start from a clear understanding of what exactly is happening, what kinds of choices Australia has to make and the options it has to choose between.

First, Australia needs to acknowledge that the economic shift to Asia does indeed have profound implications for the balance of strategic power as well. China is now strong enough to contest America’s leadership in Asia, and is plainly doing so. That means the old days of uncontested American primacy, and the Asian order that has been built on this foundation, are already history. Australia’s choices are about what kind of order it would like to see replace this.

Second, Australia needs to recognise that there are several possibilities for the kind of new order that could emerge. One is a contested order framed by strategic rivalry between the US and China. Everyone can see that this option is risky and undesirable, but whether it might anyway be the best available option depends on the alternatives. If the only alternative is Chinese domination, then rivalry might be preferable, because no one wants to live under Chinese hegemony.

But there is another option: one in which the US stays engaged in Asia to balance China’s power, but does not try to dominate Asia itself. This is surely a better outcome than either of the others, if it can be achieved. That would not be easy, because the US and China would both have to agree to accommodate one another’s interests and share power.

Indeed the trends at present, typified by Obama’s tough talk in Canberra, all point the other way. So if Australia would like to see this outcome, it will need to find ways to encourage both the US and China in this direction, and have others in Asia do the same. This seems to be what both Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd are suggesting.

Third, Australia needs to recognise that urging America to work with China to build what Rudd calls a Pax Pacifica is not tantamount to abandoning the American alliance. America’s role in Asia and its alliance with Australia will change, but the enduring foundation of the alliance could and should remain.

These will never be easy issues for Australia to debate. In the Asian century, its Asian neighbours will for the first time be richer and stronger than its great and powerful friends. Australia will perhaps never again enjoy the familiar reassurance of being a very close ally of the world’s dominant power. But it can prosper in a stable, peaceful Asia if a new Pax Pacifica can be built that both accommodates Asia’s new power and keeps America engaged. How would that work? How can it be built? How can Australia help? These are the questions we really need to debate now.

Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, and Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International PolicyHe is also an EAF Distinguished Fellow for 2012.

This post is part of the series on the Asian Century which feeds into the Australian government White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century.