On the boil: Australia, China and the Western Pacific

Photo: Strobe Driver

Photo: Strobe Driver

There has been much debate, indeed sparring, recently about whether the coming decades will be the ‘Asian Century’ or a renewed ‘American Century’ as has been shown in The Age.  With America progressing down the road of a more energy-sustainable future and China being tied to an energy-related growth cycle, the jury is still out on who will be the most successful at meeting their respective challenges and who will not.  Professor Hugh White has been very tactful with regard to the issues that will face Australia in giving an broad overview of the coming problems Australia will face with regard to defence, whilst in turn ex-prime minister Malcolm Fraser has hinted that the ANZUS treaty should be reviewed.  In  turn Clyde Prestowitz has suggested that America’s demise—what some have equated as  America being  the ‘new Rome’—is vastly overrated.  America, he suggests, is on the rise and will continue to be this way for decades to come.  All this debate is well and good but where does this really leave Australia?

Whichever way the two major players, America and China, are perceived by the commentators one thing that is certain is that the western Pacific will be the next epicentre of the world in terms of geo-strategic, economic and political machinations, and Australia will be thrust on to centre stage.  As China pushes further and further from these three pivotal angles there is no reason to believe that the Chinese Communist Party  will  behave any differently than those who have gone before it—the prime examples being the Soviet Union and the US.  Both of these political actors during the Cold War years demanded to know which side others were ‘on’ and of course, the most recent dictum of this attitude came from President George W. Bush in a somewhat undiplomatic, yet forceful approach to the ‘war on terror’ and countries either being ‘with’ or ‘against’ the US.  The danger therefore, resides in whether the CCP over the next two decades—which will be two dangerous decades—demands the same decision from Australia and takes the same hard line approach.  Martin Jacques in his book When China Rules The World, suggests that China is determined to take its ‘rightful place’ in the world and that in fact the last two centuries have been an aberration rather than the norm—that is, the Western European powers ruling the oceans and regions of the world without significant input and influence from Asian nations-states is not a situation that is ‘normal.’  China is on a pathway therefore, to restore the equilibrium and moreover, it will achieve this in any way in which it needs.  Where does this new ‘attitude’ leave Australia?

There is no reason to think that China will not pursue its geo-strategic place in the world starting with a contained and focussed dominance over the western Pacific.  A resurgent People’s Liberation Army Navy has since the late 1990s been evolving into an effective ‘blue water’ navy and as one of its first operational tasks  took part in anti-piracy measures off the coast of Somalia during the late-1990s as part of a multi-lateral force.  Interestingly, it differed in its approach to the situation by refusing to take orders from the US Navy which was effectively in control of the effort, and whilst the PLAN remained a meaningful part of the international task force, the stance it took was a signal to the international community: China had arrived.  As the western Pacific heats up as a zone-of-contention between a superpower and a regional power it will without doubt place Australia in a very difficult position, that of having to deal with a non-Anglo force in the neighbourhood.  China, in the process of its geo-strategic stretch will demand clear-cut decisions from Australia with regard to the western Pacific; and the Asia-Pacific region.  China will without doubt, want to know where Australia ‘stands’ and will be prepared to back up any perceived or actual infringements on what it sees as its newfound role in the region with military might.  Why would it be any different than other powerful nation-states when it has the US Navy’s presence in the Persian Gulf, the British military’s presence in the Falkland Islands, and the recent storming of the Mavi Marmara by the Israeli Defense Force as examples of what can be achieved when politics is backed up by military force.   The unfortunate reality of the situation at hand is military threat-of-force followed by a kinetic phase of operations has been the norm and therefore the reasons for China not to take this line-of-reasoning is an arid argument.

The point being, there is increasing dangers for Australia as the Asia-Pacific region becomes a much more highly-contested space and whatever approach Australia takes in the future will have more drastic and direct consequences for Australia than what has gone before.  To ignore this fact will be at Australia’s peril.  In accordance with this doomsday forecast, to suggest for instance that China will eventually and actually react militarily and/or economically to the rotation of US marines through Darwin is not too long a bow to draw.  Nor should it come as a surprise if China demands that Australia cease forthwith from this practice in the yearly Australia-China meeting, that ex-prime minister Gillard set up, as stated in her Summers’ interview.  For Australia, the brutal truth is as the Asia-Pacific becomes the global hotspot in the near-future with this newfound space will bring demands upon Australia that will be not dissimilar to those placed on it by the US and the British, at the beginning of the Pacific phase of World War Two.  To think that China will step back from turning the western Pacific from a zone-of-contention into a zone-of-control is folly in the extreme, as is the notion that if a limited military collision between Australia and China took place, the US would immediately and unequivocally come to our defence.  Time is short and Australia needs to be more cosmopolitan in its regional outlook and be more pro-active in undertaking regional diplomacy, Indonesia notwithstanding. Friendship with China will take hard work and more importantly a change of approach from what has always been to what will be,  is in order.

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