AS the G20 meeting begins in Brisbane, the situation seems relatively quiet on the Asia-Pacific front — contrary to the forecasts of some alarmists who see conflict coming between the US and Japan on the one hand and China on the other.
First up, China’s President Xi Jinping met Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum summit in Beijing. Body language experts suggest that the public handshake was cold. But the meeting occurred despite the tension between the two nations over uninhabited islands in the South China Sea.
Soon after, President Barack Obama announced an easing of visa restrictions for Chinese businesspeople along with students wishing to work or study in the US. As well, Obama and Xi announced an agreement to reduce carbon emissions.
Although Obama and Xi have made promises that they cannot deliver, the fact the two leaders reached an agreement suggests that the US-China relationship is in reasonable shape — for the moment, at least.
This may come as a surprise to those who follow the thought of Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University and the go-to China expert for the ABC and Fairfax Media.
On November 3, White took part in a debate on ABC’s Lateline with University of NSW professor Alan Dupont. Presenter Emma Alberici soon got around to asking the big question: “Are we going to see a war in our region, Hugh White?” White seized on the opportunity to talk on a favourite topic and responded: “Look, I think that’s a possibility we can’t rule out.”
It soon became clear that White’s prediction about a war between the US and China was closer to probable than possible. He referred to “the situation in which you have two very strong powers like the US and China, and smaller ones like the Southeast Asian countries, tied up in this rivalry which is … about territory but also perhaps more deeply about status and power”. White went on to suggest that the situation “is a little bit like what happened in 1914”.
He banged a similar drum in The Age last Tuesday. White referred to the recent joint statement by Beijing and Tokyo on the islands issue. According to him, this appeared to ease the strain that their tensions have been placing on US-China relations — but not really, as “this episode might end up being seen as another win for China”.
So, there is a problem when China and Japan are not putting out joint statements about contentious issues. And there is a problem when joint statements are released. Certainly the ABC and Fairfax Media embraced White’s analysis. After all, talk of a looming war between China and the US is much more newsy than predictions of peace in the short to medium term. That’s why White has remained an available source for comment on the Asia-Pacific despite his poor performance in the area of soothsaying.
Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald on March 24, 2005, White suggested that “we may face … (a) naval battle this year … between the US and Chinese navies, ostensibly over Taiwan’s independence, but in reality over which power would emerge pre-eminent in Asia in the 21st century”. He then noted that “the battle probably will not happen” but hinted that it might.
Nothing happened. So, seven years later, White had another go. Writing in The Ageon December 26, 2012, he warned readers not “to be too surprised if the US and Japan go to war with China” in 2013 “over the inhabited rocks that Japan calls the Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyu”. The professor advised his readers not to “assume that the war would be contained and short”. Once again, nothing happened. But the professor is consistent and appeared on Lateline earlier this month suggesting that a US-China war was at least a possibility.
In his recent column in The Age, White claimed that “over the next few days we will witness the escalating rivalry between the US and China for leadership in Asia played out on our doorstep”. It’s too early to assess the outcome of the G20 deliberations in Brisbane. But indications from the Beijing APEC meeting provided no evidence of a rapidly escalating rivalry between Beijing and Washington.
White maintains that Australia’s future “depends on the outcome” of this tension. Without predicting the outcome of any such rivalry, the evidence suggests that successive Australian governments have been able to maintain good relations with our ally the US and with our trading partner China.
This was true of the governments led by Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. The tradition is being continued by Tony Abbott despite White’s prediction in The Canberra Times on April 1 that the Prime Minister’s visit to Japan could have a “disastrous” impact on Australia’s relationship with China. It didn’t.
Obviously, the international situation can change suddenly. However, there is no evidence that the world in 2014 resembles that of 1914. In 1914, imperial Germany was an aggressive power, which soon became evident when the German army occupied neutral Belgium and invaded France.
Right now, despite the tensions between Japan and China, no nation in the Asia-Pacific shows any intention of invading another state. And Australia’s relations with the nations of the region remain good — despite the alarmists in our midst.