A Tilt Toward China? Australia Reconsiders Its American Ties
In August 2012, Australian professor Hugh White released The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power. White argues that America—unchallenged as the preeminent power in Asia since the Second World War—now has three basic options in the face of growing Chinese power: contest leadership in Asia, voluntarily cede primacy, or establish a regional concert of great powers. Historically, the foundations of American primacy have been built on unparalleled economic size and strength. For White, these foundations are crumbling, and future peace and stability depend on Washington being prepared to step back and accept China as its strategic equal in Asia.
In the face of what is often called a rising “Asian Century,” White’s proposal is more serious than it might first appear. And as America’s closest ally in the region, with power in its own right, Australia has some influence over Washington’s course. If China overtakes America as the world’s largest economy over the next decade, as former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating noted in endorsing White’s book, the People’s Republic will want and expect more “strategic space,” which Australia, in White’s argument, could benefit from advocating. Moreover, the idea of urging America to treat China as a strategic equal should also be understood as an attempt at a policy response in the face of some very difficult questions ahead for American security allies and partners in the region. China has emerged as the largest or second-largest trading partner of every major country in Asia, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India, and Australia. This trade dynamic exists uncomfortably alongside the fact that China is allowed very little strategic role in the region, with countries preferring to outsource their security to America. In May 2012, a retired senior People’s Liberation Army officer, Song Xiaojun, reflecting cynically on these tensions, told Australian newspapers that leaders in Canberra cannot juggle diverging security and economic interests indefinitely and may find it necessary to eventually reconsider Australia’s “godfather” in the region. With such a potential decision looming ever larger, it is no wonder that White’s proposal that America share power and strategic responsibilities with China—reducing pressures for regional countries to make such a portentous choice—is seen by many as a viable option.