Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Explainer: Do we have to choose between China and the US [The Age]


Does Australia need a new godfather? Such an interesting game of rhetoric chess, this is. Has the time for cold war alliances really passed as Song Xiaojun suggests? Does the land down under really have to choose between the US and China? The Age has a think in this opinion piece. However way it turns, how China handles this would be both indicative and reflective of its peaceful development intent especially when things do not go its way despite playing the role of banker.

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Explainer: Do we have to choose between China and the US 
By Tom Hyland
Source – The Age, published May 20, 2012

A RETIRED Chinese military officer has come up with a simple answer to a complex question that preoccupies Australian prime ministers, strategists and spooks: how to respond to the rise of China?

Song Xiaojun’s answer appears not to come from the arcane world of international relations theory, although it may reflect ancient imperial concepts where lesser states defer to emperors.

The way he expressed it comes from American popular culture – Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather. What Australia needs, Mr Song says, is a Don Vito Corleone.

It’s clear from his comments, made to The Age correspondent Philip Wen last week, that he thinks this modern-day godfather should be based in Beijing, not New York.

”Australia has to find a godfather sooner or later,” Mr Song said. ”Australia has always had to depend on somebody else, whether it is to be the ‘son’ of the US or ‘son’ of China. [It] depends on who is more powerful, and based on the strategic environment.’

Mr Song is retired, so his comments can’t be taken as official policy. But his utterances coincided with Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s first official visit to China, where Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi presumed to tell Australia to dispense with a bipartisan and central pillar of its foreign policy: the alliance with the United States. Mr Yang’s advice was that ”the time for Cold War alliances has passed”.

Leaving aside the diplomatic propriety of these comments, they once again raise a nagging question. Does China’s rise to economic and strategic power mean Australia has to make a difficult choice, between Beijing (”your banker”, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once put it), and the US, the assumed guarantor of our security for 60 years?

Strategic thinker Hugh White is among those who says we can’t have both. ”I just don’t think it’s going to be possible,” he said in 2010 after triggering a debate on the dilemma posed by China’s rise. ”The very thing which is keeping us afloat economically is undermining the structure which keeps us safe strategically. This falls into the ‘shit happens’ school of international affairs.”

Professor White argues China’s challenge to US power is a reality, not a possibility. The best way to deal with this, he says, is for the US to agree to share power with China and the other big regional players, India and Japan.

The then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, insisted Australian did not have to choose. ”The idea of some zero-sum game, head to Washington or head to Beijing, is frankly nonsense,” he said

Prime Minister Julia Gillard last month said the question was based on a false premise: ”China knows we are in a long-term defence arrangement with America and I think we can, whilst continuing to be a staunch ally of America, also have a good, constructive, robust relationship with China, including an economic relationship of considerable breadth and depth.’

So this means that while our trade with China booms – it is our largest export market and import source, with two-way trade at more than $100 billion – we embrace President Barack Obama’s strategic ”pivot” back to the Pacific and let US marines stage through the Northern Territory, without publicly answering the questions: Why the pivot? What are the marines for?

If there is a contradiction in official views towards China, it’s reflected in public opinion. Last year’s Lowy Institute poll found Australians overwhelmingly (75 per cent) recognise China’s economic growth has been good for Australia; but 57 per cent think there’s too much Chinese investment in Australia.

A majority (55 per cent) think it’s unlikely that China will pose a military threat within 20 years, while 44 per cent think it’s likely. At the same time we cling to the US. The poll found 82 per cent say the US alliance is important for Australia’s security, even while 73 per cent accepted that the alliance makes it more likely we will be drawn into a war that would not be in our interests; and 55 per cent favoured US bases here.

All of this could be taken to reveal a collective cognitive dissonance, where we simultaneously hold contradictory views on China. Or it may be that we’ve embraced what strategists call strategic ambiguity. Gamblers call it hedging their bets.

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Filed under: Australia, Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Domestic Growth, Economics, Government & Policy, Influence, International Relations, Mapping Feelings, Peaceful Development, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Resources, Soft Power, Strategy, Tao Guang Yang Hui (韬光养晦), The Age, The Chinese Identity, Trade, U.S.

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