Let’s hear it for President Obama on China – But not Hugh White, Paul Keating or Geoff Raby

STONE the crows! Realists are falling over each other to explain why we should encourage the Yanks to defer to China.

According to Hugh White:

As China, the world’s fastest-growing major economy, ascends, America has three choices: it can compete, share power or concede leadership in Asia. America’s best option is to share power with China and relinquish its supremacy. [i]

Quite right, said Paul Keating:

I have long held the view that the future of Asian stability cannot be cast by a non-Asian power – especially by the application of US military force. [ii]

Unnecessary argument, added former Australian ambassador to China Geoff Raby – making the point that keeping the peace is in everybody’s interest. The Australian and Chinese economies are inter-dependent. China is not fazed by our US alliance and has enough on its plate maintaining domestic order and keeping an eye on its immediate neighbours. However, if push came to shove between Washington and Beijing, the Americans need to know Australia will look after its own interests. [iii]

It’s all sweet Realpolitik reason and, with luck, we will never have to choose between protecting our exports by deferring to a dictatorship and abandoning an ally.

But one difficulty with this Concert of Asia approach is that it is Anzus-Sino-centric, ignoring everybody else.

As Rory Medcalf points it:

[White’s] elegant formula downplays the realities faced by the many other nations across Indo-Pacific Asia that place a premium on their own security and honour. All of this goes to the destiny, dignity and interests of hundreds of millions of people, who happen to be neither American nor Chinese.[iv]

An even bigger problem is that power sharing assumes the people in Beijing will always behave like their fellow mandarins in Washington and Canberra. They won’t. For a start, China’s rulers have a freedom of action Australian mandarins and ministers can’t imagine.

The complete inability of Australia leaders to pass power on to their children (except in the ALP where some seats in parliament appear hereditary) means they have no other way of staying in power than by keeping the voters happy.

Ever since WWI, the Australian electorate has not liked the idea of going to war when somebody says it is in the national interest that they get shot at. Even small-scale stoushes are rarely popular for long. The electorate was disillusioned about Vietnam within five years and, by the time of the First Gulf War, even sending frigates to a combat zone led to protests in city streets.

One-party states, not having quite grasped the idea of elections or elected oppositions, don’t play by the same rules as democracies. If the politburo wants a blue in the region, for whatever reason, then a blue it will bring on, whatever the Chinese people, who will pay for and die in a war, want.

This is not to argue that China’s rulers are mad or bad – they just want to stay in power and that means ensuring nobody at home gets any ideas about regime change.

The Chinese leadership is petrified of popular rebellions, which is why they keep vetoing UN action in Syria – any unelected regime is the Chinese Communist Party”s pal. The official reason for the veto from ambassador to the UN Li Baodong makes the point; the UN resolution would “cause spillover to the other countries in the region”.[v]

And it is why the Chinese are very serious about suppressing dissent and appearing in complete control. In 2009, President Hu Jintao ducked a G8 meeting in Italy and rushed back to China to deal with ethnic clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in the remote city of Urumqi. It was no threat to the regime, but it demonstrated how Beijing takes keeping everything under control very seriously indeed. [vi]

Apart from the inherent injustice of authoritarian regimes where the people do not rule, this has nothing to do with us or the Yanks for that matter. Short of China developing a blue water carrier fleet which it stations across our trade routes it won’t.

Unless of course Beijing decides some event overseas threatens its domestic credibility and feels the need to put the Indians or South Koreans, the Japanese, Taiwanese or Vietnamese in their place. And if they appeal to the US, which asks us to get involved.

Which is when it would get interesting.

The problem is not that the US is an imperialist power intent on denying China a sphere of influence in its own region. It’s just that they are in the power game for different reasons.

President Obama nailed it in his speech to parliament last year, a speech Geoff Raby suggests the Prime Minister should not have embraced: [vii]

History shows that, over the long run, democracy and economic growth go hand in hand. And prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty.[viii]

If the CCP ever decides the US is intent on doing something that might give the Chinese people the idea that political poverty is not their inevitable lot it will be on for one and all, including us.


[i] Hugh White, The China Choice: why America should share power (Melbourne, 2012)

[ii] Paul Keating, “A case for Chinese legitimacy, The Australian, August 11

[iii] Geoff Raby, “2012 Richard Larkins Oration: Australia and China at 40: pivot, divot and the US,” August 7 @  http://geoffraby.com/English/newsitem/87 recovered on August 11

[iv] Rory Medcalf, “Power play risks dissent over discord,”

[v] Joe Lauria, “Russia, China, veto Syria resolution at UN,” Wall Street Journal, July 19

[vi] Edward Wong, “China warns of executions as riots ebb,” New York Times, July 8 2009

[vii] Raby, ibid

[viii] “Text of Obama’s speech to parliament,” Sydney Morning Herald, November 17 2011