USA’s Poodle: Australia’s Foolish Feud with China

Sam Roggeveen, in Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 2021, with this Headline: “The West is not coming to Australia’s rescue. We need new alliances”

The summits of the G7 group and the NATO alliance over the past few days have produced an avalanche of headlines about a growing anti-China mood among Western nations and an appetite to stand up to Beijing’s assertiveness.

Let’s hope the Australian government is not taking these headlines too seriously, because the harsh truth is that there will be no Western alliance to contain China, and no united democratic front against Beijing’s authoritarianism. The sooner we realise this and build it into our foreign and defence policies, the safer we will be.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at the end of a NATO summit in Brussels.French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at the end of a NATO summit in Brussels.CREDIT:AP

It’s important to stress that this is not an argument about Western “decline”, which is a vastly overstated prospect. The European Union is a massive and vibrant economic actor, and NATO is one of the most successful alliances in modern history. The United States remains fantastically powerful, and that won’t change in our lifetime. It has a resilient and growing economy, favourable demographics (lots of young people), tremendous capacity for innovation, a huge military, and it is surrounded by vast oceans to the east and west and friendly neighbours to the north and south.

But of course, China is huge too. Even if we accept all the pessimistic prognoses about China’s economic future – ageing population, ballooning debt, environmental disasters – it is safe to assume that a country which already boasts the world’s second-largest economy will hold on to that mantle, and might even ascend to first place.

That in turn raises the stakes of any geopolitical contest between China and the West, especially for Europe, which has no obvious reason to get involved. Why would NATO deal itself into such a high-stakes contest when China poses no conceivable military threat to Europe? You might argue that Europe has economic interests to protect, but European nations have not had a substantial military presence in Asia for decades, while their economic ties to Asia have grown.

Doesn’t Europe have an interest in protecting democracy from the rise of authoritarianism? Perhaps, but China is not an ideological exporter. While it certainly wants to defend its own political system from Western liberal influences, it shows no signs of wanting to impose its model on the world as the Soviet Union once tried.

Many of these same arguments apply to the United States, but the difference is that Washington already has a substantial security presence in Asia and a network of alliances. It is trying to defend a position of leadership which it has held for decades. That is a powerful motivation. The United States may decide that holding on to leadership in Asia is so important that it ought to engage in a fierce contest of economic and political systems in order to defend its status.

But is leadership alone enough of a motivation? Will the US engage in such a costly contest, and risk a potentially catastrophic war, just to preserve its status? Because there really is no other pressing reason for the US to go all-in. China is no more of a threat to America’s cherished democratic principles than it is to Europe’s political systems. America is also one of the most secure nations in the world – it cannot be invaded or militarily coerced. And as for protecting its economic interests: well, if Europe can grow its economic ties with Asia even though it has no military presence there, why can’t the US do the same?

None of this is to say Australia is friendless and that our alliance with the US is worthless. An American withdrawal from Asia is a very distant prospect. But while the US will remain an important partner, the Morrison government should assume that the credibility of America’s alliance commitments in Asia will diminish over time. China’s rise means the costs to America of meeting its commitments to allies have risen sharply, while the incentives for doing so are diminishing. And that means allies will no longer believe, deep in their bones, that the US will be there for them in a military emergency.

Does that mean Australia is entirely on its own? No, the United States, and to a lesser extent Europe, will remain important partners, particularly when it comes to selling high-tech weapons and sharing intelligence. But if there is a natural security partner for Australia in this era it is not to be found among the Western nations with which we have traditionally partnered. The obvious candidate is Indonesia, south-east Asia’s leader and future economic player of global standing. Jakarta and Canberra should work towards a new era of strategic co-operation built on the common objective of keeping maritime south-east Asia free of domination by China.

The days of Western dominion in Asia are over. Australia’s security must rest on a deep and enduring connection with its neighbours.

Sam Roggeveen is Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute. Connect with Sam on Twitter.


Filed under accountability, american imperialism, australian media, authoritarian regimes, centre-periphery relations, China and Chinese influences, economic processes, foreign policy, historical interpretation, military strategy, politIcal discourse, power politics, self-reflexivity, the imaginary and the real, world events & processes

3 responses to “USA’s Poodle: Australia’s Foolish Feud with China

  1. King is Truth

    Most of the Australian media praises Morrison’s boasting of friends in high place in the G7 which he uses to throw stones at China. But the above essay is balanced and sane, and provides a good basis for rethinking our relationship with China, and though I don’t agree with everything he says, his conclusion leaves us in no doubt what Australia is confronting, which is “the days of Western dominion in Asia are over”. For all the rhetoric coming out of the US, UK and France saying they stand with Australia, it doesnt mean much. Sooner or later Australia will need to rethink its place in this region which is NOT Europe as well as our relationship with China rather than advocate the madness of calling for all out war against China. As China is our strongest trading partner, such a war would be suicidal.

  2. Siri Hewawitharana

    A Bunch of ex Slave owners plusthe armaments industry with rightwing media have got together and started this anti-China rhetoric. Real democrats need to assess this set of tales by explorations in history. In UK schools we were never told aboutthe Opium War and the royal navy’s attachment to that war and how all of activities generrated money via slavery, war and colonialism.Of course they are now respectable and creating a rule based order? You need to go to the Beijing summer palace to see how those so called westerners destroyed the place out of sheer jealousy to teach China a lesson. China now needs to be careful not to get into a trap set up by these racists. I am sad to see HK being run like a Communist city and like to ask why China is pursuing this destructive behaviour towars a beautiful city.
    Also having a gullible idiot as our Aussie PM who is destroying billions of Australian exports does not help the country either.
    One of the meanest — yet among the most difficult to detect — characteristics of human nature is “HYPOCRACY”. This word derives from Greek and literally means “play-acting” because it was first referred to actors who, on stage, had to give a specific interpretation of a certain character.
    The modern definition indicates a state of promoting virtues, moral beliefs or principles that one does not actually have or is guilty of violating. It can also be considered a kind of lie because it often involves deceiving others. Hypocrisy is not simply failing to practice those virtues, but misleading his fellows into believing that they have them.
    Nowadays it seems that such behaviour is often accepted in order, so to say, to grease the wheels of social exchange and interaction. But hypocrites should be aware that their behaviour, beside being unethical, can also corrode their well-being, if they continually make use of it.

  3. Siri Hewawitharana

    China has taken a nationalist, authoritarian turn under Xi, and western companies are facing huge dilemma. While doing business in China often remains lucrative, it also increasingly requires uncomfortable compromises.

    That trend raises the question of whether, instead of empowering the Chinese people, western investment in the country has empowered the Chinese Communist Party.

    “The Communist Party is firmly in control, and both Western companies and Chinese companies in the private sector have been under attack.”

    Myself and many executives, politicians and academics had bet that Western investment in China would lead the country to liberalise. It is now clear that they miscalculated.

    “We were wrong,”. “The wild card was Xi Jinping.”

    It suspended sign-ups to LinkedIn after the site failed to censor enough political content.

    By then, China was transitioning from making toys and tennis shoes to cars and computers. The government often required foreign companies to share their technology with state-owned firms in exchange for access to Chinese labor and consumers. To stop that, western companies pushed for the country’s inclusion in the World Trade Organisation, which banned such quid pro quos. In 2001, the group admitted China.

    China’s new leader was looking for ways to use his influence over western companies in the country. In 2014, China’s so-called dispatch labor law went into effect, limiting the share of temporary workers in a company’s workforce to 10 per cent.

    To measure the success of their lobbying, western executives looked to the government’s annual corporate social responsibility scores, a proxy for the Communist Party’s view of a company.

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