Western thinking shouldn't mean frosty relations with China. Photo by AFP.

Western thinking shouldn't mean frosty relations with China. Photo by AFP.

Time for a new China vision

19 February 2015

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Emeritus Professor

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China is not seeking to break the rules of global order, writes Stuart Harris.

Australia’s foreign policy, and notably its relations with the US and China, has been a mix of positives and negatives under the Coalition government, as was true of the previous Labor government.

This reflects the lack of a broad strategic vision of Australia’s geographic realities and the evolving relationships involved.

Former prime ministers, Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke recognised the need for Australia to think strategically about future regional developments, and John Howard’s thinking gradually moved in that direction. Such long term strategic thinking is more urgently needed today.

The Asian region is changing, as are its regional dynamics. While the US is a Pacific power, it comes to Asia from outside. To complicate the picture, this is a region not only featuring China, but a China which is the largest trading partner with all Asian nations, including Australia. Our future relations with the region, in Northeast Asia and with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) particularly, will depend upon our relations with China as well as with the US.

A coherent strategy needs to reflect the reality that we are linked to Asia from within the region. It needs to reflect the growing importance of China globally and to Australia, and to develop a political depth with that country similar to that with the US. And it will be increasingly difficult to continue separating economic and strategic issues (paralleling, as we do, the divide between engagers and confronters in US policy).

Consequently, adapting historian Michael Howard’s injunction to better know a nation’s context, we need greater understanding of China’s environment, history, and culture, including its political system; that understanding does not imply that we like that system, but that we are able to work effectively with it.

The dominant and often one-sided Western perspective is not always helpful when judging whether China will be aggressive and expansionist, or whether it will live more or less peaceably with the rest of the world. We assume that terms like ‘international rules’, ‘global order’ and what constitutes ‘responsible behaviour’ are understood and accepted by all others. Yet for China, these terms have emerged from a different culture and historical experience. These differences in vision affect China’s foreign policy.

Even so, despite obvious exceptions, such as human rights, in practice China is well integrated into the international system as we know it and largely complies with international rules – probably at least as well as other major powers. Despite criticism of China’s reluctance to lead internationally, that approach might suggest not just free-riding, but reluctance to challenge the existing global order. 

When China opened up under Deng Xiao-ping, it joined an international order that reflected a pluralistic view of the international community, that acknowledged differences in political and domestic value systems, and that pursued mutually acceptable global rules and geopolitical equilibrium. Then the common vision shifted and the membership bar was raised.

Ultimately, a US led international system emerged that involved an agenda of good governance, ‘free’ markets and ‘democracy’ (usually just elections). These aimed to advance US security and its other interests. The objective of regime change under this agenda in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria and perhaps Ukraine suggests we should be cautious about what we wish for. For China, in any case, it implies regime change, social instability, and the end of the Party/state.

Of course, China has regional and global ambitions and China’s relative military and other capacities will grow, probably substantially. China wants a role that commands attention and respect from its neighbours, particularly in its ‘near abroad’, and we may not always like what it or others do. So a continued US presence in the region is critical; it needs, however, to manage relations between states rather than just pursue political change or impose views of complex issues that then become part of the problem.

China feels internationally vulnerable and, as with the US, domestic nationalism influences its policies. Internally, China’s leaders fear fragmentation, instability and, after Bo Xilai, competition for power. China has major problems: corruption, inequalities, pollution, resource shortages, an aging population, and an economy that needs structural reform.

Consequently, with domestic issues as its main priority, its foreign policies will remain largely defensive and reactive to external influences, rather than offensive and expansive. Moreover, it knows it needs stable relations with the US and its neighbours in order to sustain its development. It will seek changes to the rules by basically working within the existing framework.

Obviously, maritime disputes are worrying but hardly central to Australia’s strategic interests. Sovereignty claims by all parties in the South China and East China seas are unhelpful and pose serious risks of miscalculation. Outcomes that reflect resolution of sovereignty claims are unlikely. Our attention is understandably focused on China, but the historical context needs to be understood including China’s ‘missing out’ on territory in the 1960s/1970s regional ‘island grab’. Provocations and efforts to change the status quo are not limited to China or unconnected  to the US pivot and the regionally divisive Trans Pacific Partnership.

A US regional presence remains strategically important; our values, however, are often different, as at times are our vital interests, and we need to re-examine our concepts of regional order. There are considerable risks in Australia’s growing enmeshment in the US regional security system to where our security policy is increasingly a function of that of the US, and an independent Australian position difficult to maintain.

These issues will become important in the future, possibly with long term potential dangers in adverse regional developments, notably potentially over Taiwan. US diplomatic management of such problems will remain critical, but history will treat unkindly any Australian political leader who, consciously or inadvertently, commits Australia to military conflict involving China without clear public support and a full parliamentary debate for which an explicit strategic assessment of Australia’s long term vital interests would be a prerequisite.

Stuart Harris is emeritus professor in the Department of International Relations, at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. His latest book is China’s Foreign Policy, available from Wiley.

This article was also published at policyforum.net, the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society. 

Updated:  23 March 2016/Responsible Officer:  Su-Ann Tan/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team