Tuesday, 28 May 2013

We need not uncritically choose between US and China

Not having to choose means not having to say you're sorry. Or something like that. For seasoned defence wonk Hugh White, saying you don't have to choose contains a moral failing, as he outlines in his column today in the Age. White is evidently irritated by Australian politicians saying that Australia does not have to choose between the US and China, in the strategic sense of the phrase. In terms of military alliances and allegiances. In fact, White seems to be very cross indeed. Our politicians may say NOW that we don't have to choose, he says, but what they say IN THE FUTURE will be something they have no control over.
Whether in future we will face a choice between America and China depends absolutely on how their relationship with one another develops. The decision will not be ours, but theirs. If either of them decide that we have to make a choice, then we do. The better they get along, the less we will be forced to choose. The more they see themselves as rivals, the starker our choices will be.
To illustrate his case, White draws on historical precedent, pointing to Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing in 1972, after which Australia's relations with China, says White, changed. "It was the deal between Nixon and Mao, and the US-China relationship that flowed from it, that changed [Australia's uncritical military support for the US in southeast Asia]," says White, "and has saved us from making choices for the past 40 years." But White forgets, perhaps, that Gough Whitlam visited China in 1971 while in Opposition, and met with Chinese leaders there. As soon as he entered office, and even before he had assembled his cabinet, Whitlam not only normalised diplomatic relations with China, and relinquished those with Taiwan, but he also withdrew all remaining troops from Vietnam. These moves demonstrate how it's possible to avoid an uncritical stance vis-a-vis the China-US nexus by sticking to principle and making bold moves.

I can certainly understand how White, who spends all of his time studying strategic problems, would become agitated by the uncritical pronouncements of politicians looking to generate support among the electorate. If "John Howard said recently it was 'infantile' even to discuss the idea that we might have to choose" it becomes clearer why White would complain; Howard always irritates me when he opens his mouth! But just as China decided, early on, to find its own way and "to manage to cross the river by feeling the stones" as their beloved former president Deng Xiaoping once said, Australia does not have to show its hand in a desperate rush, and neither does it have to allow its hand to be shown due to forces outside it. There are different ways to engage with both the US and China - ways that depend on sticking to principle - that can obviate the need to uncritically kow-tow to the preferred hegemon, in any given situation.

In fact, I'm not really sure why White continues to write pieces like the one he published today; it's not the first time he has spoken out to demand a commitment one way or the other. He seems to think this is useful. Well, it can be if it spurs reasoned debate. But it's worthwhile remembering that Australia does have policy instruments in place that will serve to steer future political decisions, such as the ANZUS treaty. Not all countries uncritically follow hegemons in all cases and at all times. Look at New Zealand, for example. Australia is unique in having fought alongside the US in all wars that it has participated in since WWI, and there's no reason why this has to continue.

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