China syndrome

Print edition : March 23, 2007

Australia emphasises peace with China, notwithstanding U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney's caution on Beijing's military build-up.


Dick Cheney walks in with Australian Prime Minister John Howard to a press conference in Sydney on February 24.-MARK BAKER/AP

For a few years now, China has been, for its part, emphasising that it is pursuing a policy of "peaceful rise". But, from the time China began propagating this "grand strategy", there has been no dearth of cynical critics, especially in the West. United States Vice-President Dick Cheney, a hawk in matters relating to "American national interest", is prominent among the critics of China. Ironically, therefore, it is in his presence that Australian Prime Minister John Howard, as close an ally as the U.S. can get, has now refused to put his country on a collision course with China.

In doing so, Howard has not only spoken for Australia but also articulated the dominant political sentiment that prevails across the greater East Asian domain. The comments he made in the presence of Cheney at a press conference in Sydney on February 24 merit being quoted in full.

In what were essentially impromptu comments in response to a media question, Howard said: "Australia has striven, over the last decade, to build a very close relationship with China, But, we have always done it against the background of being realistic about the nature of [the] political society in that country. We have no illusions that China remains an authoritarian country. We have sought to emphasise, in our relations with China, those practical things that we have in common."

In a punchline for the Australian domestic political audience, Howard further said: "We do, I hope with appropriate modesty, regard it as one of the foreign policy successes of this country over the last decade that we have simultaneously become ever closer in our relationship with our great ally, the United States." Yet, at the same time, Australia had, during the same period, "built a very constructive [and] understandable relationship with China". In an earthy language, he traced this feat to an ability to "look at these things from a practical standpoint".

Howard turned the spotlight on Australia's China policy following Cheney's unbridled tirade against Beijing's military build-up. Participating in the Australia-America Leadership Dialogue a day earlier, Cheney said: "Last month's anti-satellite test and China's continued fast-paced military build-up are less constructive [than Beijing 's role in addressing the North Korean nuclear arms issue]". Cheney's punchline was that these "less constructive" activities are "not consistent with China 's stated goal of a peaceful rise".

Surely, this was not the first time that a top American leader questioned the legitimacy of China's military modernisation drive and defence expenditure. The timing, though, of Cheney's anti-China outburst was the very stuff of his political "message". He chose to question China 's military intentions at a time when the U.S. had made no apologies for looking towards Beijing for help in resolving the issues arising out of last October's nuclear-weapons test by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, as North Korea is known).

The unmistakable signal is that the U.S., for as long as it is controlled by the America-supremacists, will not brook China as a potential military superpower. All else, such as Washington's dependence on China for a final and diplomatic resolution of the DPRK nuclear puzzle, are just side-shows in the arena of American Bonaparte-ism. This is the "message" of the "offensive realists" in the U.S. administration.

However, Cheney did keep in mind the irony about the timing of his anti-China broadside. So, he acknowledged "the especially important role" China played in bringing about the February 13 multilateral accord on the denuclearisation of the DPRK and the Korean peninsula.

But, the primary aim of his political gamesmanship was to alert close U.S. allies such as Australia and Japan to China's rising military profile at a time when they might become less suspicious about Beijing as an increasingly savvy diplomatic leader.

Obviously, without wishing to see a U.S.-China collision as the inevitable denouement in East Asia sooner than later, Howard came up with a political spin. He said: "We see positive signs in the way in which China and the United States have worked together, particularly in relation to North Korea."

Significantly, it is the February 13 multilateral accord on the DPRK nuclear issue that caused some fissures in the alliance between Japan and the U.S. Both sides have played down their differences on this issue so as not to damage an alliance that both are keen to sustain at the official level in order to be able to face a strong China in the future. Not surprisingly, Cheney, who visited Tokyo prior to his meeting with Howard in Sydney, had sought to reassure Japan.

Discernible beyond the topicality of Cheney's jockeying is the emerging outline of some potential power play across greater East Asia. Chinese analysts such as Wei Ling have observed that Japan and even India are altering their military strategies and doctrines to re-position themselves in the current context of a rising China.

India is gradually making its presence felt in greater East Asia. Both Japan and Australia, besides the U.S. itself, have sought to encourage India to play a bigger role in this region. However, the major powers in the region today are still the U.S., China, Japan, Australia and South Korea, with neither the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a whole nor any of its 10 members being a particularly proactive player with regard to its military-strategic affairs.

Of these, Japan has updated its military alliance with the U.S. and the anti-war and anti-American sentiments among some sections of the Japanese people have not so far forced Tokyo to change course.

So, official Japan is still a firm ally of the U.S. Washington is, therefore, keen to allay the distress now felt by many Japanese over the perceived inadequacies of the latest multilateral accord on the DPRK nuclear arms issue. On balance, though, the future of the Japan-U.S. alliance may be determined by the manner in which the North Korean issue is finally resolved or sorted out. This is the dominant view among East Asian diplomats.

South Korea, a long-time military ally of the U.S., has for some time sought an autonomous role. Seoul has not fallen foul of the U.S. over the long-raging Iraq crisis. But sizable sections of South Koreans remain deeply distrustful of the U.S. on a variety of issues, including some aspects of the U.S. actions in Iraq. On balance, these trends have not dramatically undermined Washington's ability to count Seoul as an ally.

Yet, the future of the U.S.-South Korea military alliance may be determined by the manner in which the issue of "wartime control" is managed. This, too, is a strong perception in the East Asian diplomatic circles.

The U.S., very recently, agreed to transfer "wartime control" to South Korea in April 2012. The issue at stake is South Korea's sovereign right to exercise "wartime control" over its own troops. This "control", regardless of whether or not there is any outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula, is now vested in Washington. The latest accord on the transfer of "wartime control" is a measure of a new maturity in the U.S.-South Korea ties.

Australia, the other major U.S. ally in this region, has already demonstrated a degree of autonomy by agreeing to sell uranium to China. It has also signalled that it might want to assess issues on merit in the event of any U.S.- China confrontation over Taiwan.

The desire of some U.S. allies for peaceful coexistence with China is derived from the dynamics of the ongoing globalisation, which has become the post-Cold War mantra. Peace and stability are required in this context and, no less importantly, the U.S. is being increasingly seen as a wounded superpower.

In a RAND study on China more than a decade ago, Michael D. Swaine had recommended that the U.S. should, while taking other steps, expand contacts with the Chinese military leadership. However, U.S.-China confidence-building can only be shattered by the statements of the kind that Cheney has now made.

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