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The World is Bigger Than China and the US

08 Jul 2014
By Emeritus Professor Ramesh Thakur FAIIA
Source: CC Flickr (CSIS)

China may be the world’s new economic and geopolitical centre of gravity, however the notion that other countries such as Japan and India will quietly resign themselves to being mere consumers of a security order dictated by China and the US is utterly unrealistic.

The dominant geopolitical theme during the inaugural Crawford Australian Leadership Forum (29 June–1 July) was the rise of China. It is the world’s new economic and geopolitical centre of gravity. The sweeping expansion of its comprehensive national power has seen an exponential increase in China’s weight in the global economy, in Asian and global power balances, and in regional and global governance institutions. If sustained for another decade or two, China’s rise will alter the architecture of the international system in profound ways.

A Global “Pivot” to China

Not only was the US “pivot” to Asia in reality a China pivot; Japan, Russia and Southeast Asian countries have also been reorganising their foreign policies around the central principle of a rising China. Mesmerised by the dizzying pace of its sustained growth, many conference participants seemed to believe that China seeks the position of leadership in Asia and that the US is being forced to cede it a position of shared strategic primacy or risk a costly war.

The notion of a China–US G-2 condominium is surreal. The world is much bigger than just these two; Asia is much bigger than just these two. The idea that countries like Japan, India and others will meekly accept being mere consumers of an Asian or global security order decreed by China and the US is utterly fanciful. It ain’t going to happen: not this year, not next year, not ever. Almost the only allies China has are North Korea and Pakistan, both liabilities more than diplomatic assets; as a US participant noted, these are allies to look for when a country runs out of enemies.

Tensions have been rising in the contested East China Sea and South China Sea for five years. China is pursuing a three-pronged strategy of building up war-fighting capabilities, calibrated shows of force and a strategy of exhaustion of rival claimants. Apparently random and sporadic acts of provocations and showdowns may fail to coerce and intimidate opponents. But each push and probe tests retaliatory assets and calls into question US capacity and will to come to the aid of a beleaguered ally. These acts of provocation, deliberately held below the threshold of open warfare, are calculated to induce strategic fatigue over time, erode regional confidence and cumulatively break the political resolve to resist.

Many of the smaller countries who are feeling the weight of China’s rising power, assertive territorial claims and menacing military presence have begun to consolidate and deepen ties with the US to counter Beijing’s intimidation. The bigger countries also have the option of strengthening their own military capabilities and banding together against a common concern.

India: Expected to Boost its Military

India’s new nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to boost military acquisition and modernisation and upgrade infrastructure in border areas. He may also look towards deepening military ties and intelligence sharing with Australia, and perhaps resurrect the mothballed quadrilateral democratic coalition between Australia, India, Japan and the US. Although an abandonment of India’s traditional opposition to formal military alliances is unlikely, New Delhi could be receptive to the idea of a security consultative forum to promote a structured dialogue among the four democracies.

Japan: Reinterpreting its Constitution

On 1 July, Shinzo Abe’s cabinet formally reinterpreted the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan’s constitution to permit military assistance to an ally under attack if it poses a clear danger to Japan’s survival or to the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of its people; there is no other way of repelling the armed attack to protect Japan and its citizens; and the use of force is limited to the minimum necessary. The previous interpretation had limited the use of military force to Japan being under direct attack. China and South Korea view the reinterpretation as yet another manifestation of resurgent Japanese militarism under the nationalistic, history-denying Abe. Even domestic critics are sceptical that the conditions will serve as meaningful restraints on a future administration that wants to wage war, sincethe Japanese government will be the only judge of whether the conditions are met.

While Washington is neutral on the merits of the China–Japan territorial dispute in the East China Sea, the US–Japan security treaty does cover any territory under Japan’s administrative control. A continual series of incidents – shipping, military surveillance, declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone – around the Senkakus (as Japan calls them) will test the contention that the islands have been under steady Japanese administrative control and thereby diminish the argument for the US security treaty’s coverage extending to them.

Risk of an Unwanted War

The US will not risk a full-fledged open confrontation over relatively small and minor incidents like a Vietnamese boat sunk, a submerged reef captured or an uninhabited rocky island contested. However each probe tests the patience and resolve of the regional country and gradually increases scepticism about the reliability of the US security option. Washington is in no position to challenge Beijing on every provocation, yet each provocation that goes unchallenged improves China’s leverage over its neighbours and weakens America’s standing.

Many analysts, citing uncomfortable parallels between today’s rising China and the rise of Germany a century ago, fear a war resulting from grave miscalculations. A former US Assistant Secretary of State put the odds of an unwanted Sino–Japanese war within two years at more than 50 percent. Perhaps Beijing has been lulled into a false sense of complacency in the belief that time is on its side. As noted by another speaker the point about “sleepwalking” into war is that those involved don’t know at the time that they are walking asleep.


Ramesh Thakur is Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.