How times change. One of the more unexpected ideas to emerge from Tony Abbott’s largely successful tour of northeast Asia is that Australia’s relationship with China can be built on mutual trust.
It’s a nice idea, no doubt, but one that seems strikingly at odds with not only China’s recent behaviour, but Australia’s, too. After all, Australian strategists are currently urging the greatest expenditure on military modernisation ever undertaken in this country. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.
Nevertheless, the growing consensus in this country is that Australia doesn’t need to make a choice between its geography and its history. Australia can have amicable and productive relationships with countries that see themselves as potential rivals – even foes.
This is a beguiling idea, but is it true? Can Australia have mutually enriching commercial ties with China while simultaneously playing a prominent role in an alliance relationship with the US, which many in China see as designed to contain them?
In the absence of outright conflict, perhaps. But Australia’s behaviour, and that of many of its Asian neighbours, suggests that there aren’t too many regional leaders who are prepared to place much reliance on the emollient words of their counterparts elsewhere. Such scepticism also pervades Robert Kaplan’s latest book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of the Stable Pacific.
The unresolved territorial disputes in the South China Sea provide the particular focus for a set of realist arguments about power and what he sees as the implacable logic of geography. As Kaplan spelled out in his earlier book, The Revenge of Geography:
China’s most advantageous outlet for its ambitions is in the direction of the relatively weak states of Southeast Asia.
The current volume takes up the story of China’s rise and what he sees as the inevitable desire to extend its power and influence throughout its immediate neighbourhood. Plainly, an Asian region dominated by China would be very different; China is of the region in a way the US is not. America’s role as a so-called “off-shore balancer” has made it more attractive for many of its allies for this reason.
East Asia without an American presence would, Kaplan thinks, be devoid of moral and ideational struggles over the future basis of international order. Kaplan claims:
It is not ideas that Asians fight over, but space on the map.
Recent events in Eastern Europe serve as a sobering reminder that occupying the philosophical and ethical high ground may be of little efficacy or comfort when dealing with an autocratic thug who treats international norms and principles with contempt.
A similar calculus informs policy in the South China Sea and helps to explain China’s continuing reluctance to allow legal principles or multilateral institutions to address the region’s long-running and increasingly fraught territorial disputes.
Given China’s growing predilection for exploiting its growing strategic leverage over its weaker neighbours, there is consequently only one option, Kaplan believes:
…because China is geographically fundamental to Asia, its military and economic power must be hedged against to preserve the independence of smaller states in Asia that are US allies. And that, in plain English, is a form of containment.
Whether you agree with Kaplan’s analysis or not, he does have the great merit of calling a spade a spade. Such language stands in sharp contrast to the circumlocutions that our own policymakers adopt – possibly for very understandable reasons – when dealing with China. Whether their Chinese counterparts will be convinced by our declarations of friendship remains to be seen.
Ultimately, however, it may not matter. China cannot afford to alienate all its neighbours. There are good material reasons for believing that Chinese policymakers may exercise self-restraint. China’s all-important economic development is not going to happen in isolation. Territorial boundaries may still matter more in East Asia than just about anywhere else, as Kaplan claims, but this does not mean that they inevitably dictate national policy choices as a consequence.
Certainly war remains a real possibility in East Asia. But as even Kaplan concedes:
Beijing’s goal is not war—but an adjustment in the correlation of forces that enhances it geographical power and prestige.
This is a long way short of the pursuit of territorial expansion that fuelled many of the conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries. In this regard, at least, the underlying logic of conflict really does seem to have been reshaped by greater economic interdependence.
The big question, as ever, is whether human beings have the capacity to learn from their mistakes and not repeat them. One might have hoped that the proverbial penny had dropped about the ultimate efficacy of war by now. There are good, empirically robust reasons for thinking that it may have, given the remarkable decline in inter-state violence.
Any long-term decline in conflict is a refutation of the materially and geographically deterministic logic Kaplan sees as determining our collective fate. Current events in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea in particular provide compelling and consequential experiments that may demonstrate whether such optimism is justified.