How times change. A decade or so ago, former World Bank president and deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick suggested to China that it needed to become a “responsible stakeholder”. Even at the time this advice looked slightly condescending and patronising. Now it looks bizarrely out of kilter with a rapidly evolving international order.
In the twilight of the Obama administration, Xi Jinping is the most important leader at the current APEC summit in Peru. His keynote speech in support of trade liberalisation means he is also the current standard-bearer for continuing economic integration and the sorts of institutions that are supposed to facilitate it.
Until recently the conventional wisdom had it that only the benign dominance of the US could underpin the sort of rules-based system that is thought to distinguish an effective international order. The imminent inauguration of Donald Trump threatens to permanently overturn such assumptions, not to mention the international status quo itself.
Not only is Trump seemingly no admirer of the existing array of international institutions, but his actions and mooted policies are also likely to fatally undermine whatever remains of American authority and soft power. China, on the other hand, may be about to start playing the sort of stabilising role as a “good international citizen” that many believed a uniquely American responsibility.
In one of the more striking manifestations of this role reversal, China has urged the putative Trump administration to honour its Paris Accord commitments to climate change mitigation. The fact that it is almost certain that a pro-fossil-fuel Trump administration almost certainly won’t is less significant – in the short term, at least – than the fact that China probably will.
China may be assuming the role as defender of the prevailing international order. This is not only a remarkable transformation in the roles of the US and China, but it also poses challenges for their respective friends and possible foes alike. The key question for the countries of East Asia generally and Australia in particular is: which of the rival great powers is most likely to actually preserve the existing international order on which they have come to rely?
Given the procession of Southeast Asian leaders making their way to Beijing to pay their respects, it is clear which way some regional leaders think the winds of diplomatic influence are blowing. Plainly, some of Asia’s more authoritarian regimes may have compelling short-term reasons to favour a more politically and ideologically accommodating China over the US.
China’s evident goal of reassuming its historically dominant role in East Asia may be dramatically accelerated by a Trump presidency. A paradoxical outcome, perhaps, but less surprising and outlandish than it may seem to some in Australia and the US.
On the contrary, it has been persuasively argued that when China has been strong the region of which it is the most important part has generally been stable. Only when China has been weak has the region descended into turmoil.
If this idea holds true for the contemporary era the implication is equally clear and potentially discomfiting for policymakers in Canberra: the rise of China may not be as destabilising for the region as some – especially in the US – claim. China might even provide the sort of stability that was formerly associated with the US – despite the latter’s prominent role in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Indeed, it is important to remember – as many in China do – that China’s geopolitical track record compares rather favourably with that of the US. Historically it hasn’t been an expansionary power and it has been involved in far fewer recent wars than America has.
None of this is cause for complacency, as China’s actions in the South China Sea remind us. But if the countries most directly affected by China’s assertive policies are apparently shifting their positions and possibly even their alliances, this could make high-profile strategic gestures from Australia ineffective and contrary to our notional national interest.
More importantly from an Australian perspective, if China really does begin to underpin rather than undermine the existing regional order it might actually be in Australia’s interest not to oppose Chinese diplomacy quite so vigorously.
Such a proposition is an unthinkable heresy for most of Australia’s strategic and policymaking elites. But why would Australia want to uncritically align itself with a foreign power that may, by intention or neglect, undermine the current international order? It really does make a difference who is in power in other countries, even those upon which we have come to depend so heavily.
Precisely the same logic applies to China, too. Xi Jinping is an increasingly assertive and authoritarian figure who is directly implicated in China’s recent strategic policies.
All the more reason, therefore, that Australian policymakers should attempt to develop genuinely independent positions on critical issues, such as the growing tensions in the South China Sea or the role of the international institutions that attempt to maintain strategic stability and economic openness.
The region and the world are changing rapidly. Policy ought to reflect contemporary geopolitical realities, not anachronistic shibboleths. As Keynes famously observed, when the facts change we may need to change our minds, too – however difficult that may be for some of our leaders and policymakers.