Understanding Australia-US Relations and the Rise of China
Australia has a huge vested interest in seeing the rise of China maintained and enhanced. Photo: ABS
By Richard Cullen

Understanding Australia-US Relations and the Rise of China

Nov. 19, 2019  |     |  2 comments

The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, met with President Trump in Washington in September, 2019. At that meeting, Mr. Trump initially signalled the possibility of a military strike against Iran, as the pair discussed the special relationship between the two nations. Soon after, Mr. Morrison stressed that Australia would not be drawn into a military conflict with Iran, though it was committed to providing naval assistance to ensure freedom of navigation in the crucial Strait of Hormuz.

This special relationship, which is now under significant stress, has deep roots.

The Japanese launched the first of a series bombing attacks on Darwin, the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory, in February 1942, within about two months of the bombing of Pearl Harbour in Hawaii in December, 1941. Well over 200 were killed, many were injured and much military and civilian damage resulted. Australia had never before felt so vulnerable. The American regrouping after the Philippines fell to Japan was, initially, heavily based in Australia. It was widely and correctly understood that the US played a vital role in protecting Australia from the worst ever homeland military threat it had faced. From this experience grew a sense of profound military-political comradeship. Since the end of World War II, Australia has provided support in a number of wars led by the US, for example in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

But this list immediately raises a question: why has the US been involved in so many wars and offshore adventures?

A US public policy analyst, George Scialabba, argued, in 1985, that Third World regimes following policies considered unacceptable to the US were “subjected to American hostility, subversion or even invasion”. “Rhetoric aside, promoting democracy, self-determination and human rights has little to do with American foreign policy”, Scialabba continued. Another reviewer argued that the brothers, John Foster Dulles (US Secretary of State, 1953-1959) and Allen Dulles (CIA Director, 1953-1961), created a legacy, for the US, of perpetual war. The writer, Pankaj Mishra, declared that “Welcome to Injun country” remained a bonding-term still widely used by US service personnel deployed in war zones. The exceptional national experience of “Winning the West” -- as the modern US was being forged in the 19th century -- has served as an enduring motif within the template for making and deploying US international policy ever since. An Australian commentator, Joseph Camilleri, has estimated that the US has been involved in more than 50 attempted regime changes and military interventions outside of the US, since World War II. After the 911 attacks on the US in 2001, the Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez observed that between 1824 and 1994, the US invaded 74 countries in Latin America.

In 2018, the former US President, Jimmy Carter, noted that the US had only been at peace for 16 years of over 240 years as a nation. America was, he said, “the most warlike nation in the history of the world”. The US had spent almost US$6 trillion waging wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001. Over roughly the same period, China had built close to 30,000 kilometres of high-speed rail service, President Carter observed.

President Trump also said, when he met Mr Morrison, that China was a threat to the world, claiming that China “was building a military faster than anybody”. In fact, China currently has a single overseas base on foreign soil compared to almost 800 US military bases across 70 countries. The US has recently announced the building of yet another all-new naval base (aimed at containing China) this time at Darwin, in Australia. Total US military spending in 2018 was estimated to be US$649 billion, which was 36% of all military spending worldwide. China’s military spending in the same year was US$250 billion.

But why is the Australian -- American special relationship now subject to exceptional stress?

China has been a key Australian trading partner for several decades and is, today, Australia’s largest trading partner. Recent figures show Australia’s annual trade surplus with China has topped A$50 billion. Australia now imports a huge range of keenly priced, robust quality manufactured items from China while gaining far more, in terms of value, through natural resources exports, education provision and tourism, for example. Since 1991, Australia has maintained the longest period of sustained economic growth ever seen within the OECD. China, above all, has underwritten this outcome. China, above all, has also underwritten Australia’s remarkably fortunate first world lifestyle both by purchasing so much from Australia and by providing so much of what Australia needs at such competitive prices.

The American relationship with China has gone through a striking transition over the last century. Once, compassion was dominant. A high point of American empathy can be seen in the work of the 1938, Nobel Prize winning, bilingual novelist, Pearl S. Buck. She wrote The Good Earth some 90 years ago, in 1929, when living in Nanjing. The book compellingly narrates the drama of Chinese village life with deep understanding. The Good Earth helped shape a popular, genial understanding of China as a vast, poor, peasant-based country with a remarkable history. It influenced US concerns about Imperial Japan prior to those concerns being completely galvanized by the stunning Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941.

For around three decades after the commencement of China’s “Open Door” policy in 1978, the US generally welcomed the rise of China. Immense business opportunities were recognized and trade boomed. At the same time, there was rapidly increasing academic, intellectual and general interest in China. The spoken and unspoken expectation, especially viewed from the US, was that a modernizing China would follow a path of economic and political convergence over time. This is not, though, how matters have unfolded: China has not adhered to this Washington-shaped, macro political-economic script.

One way to take the measure of China’s rise is to compare it to Asia’s other (also high growth) mega-state, India. India gained its independence from the UK in 1947. Around two years later, the Communist Party of China overcame the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War and established the PRC on October 1, 1949. At that time, the per capita GDP in authoritarian China was roughly the same as that of democratic India. Today, notwithstanding significant growth in India, the Chinese economy is around five times the size of the Indian economy using a basic GDP per capita measure. Using a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) measure, China’s economy is still 2.5 times larger than that of India.

More broadly, China’s economy is now around 45 times the size it was 40 years ago. In raw US dollar GDP terms it is already around 60% of the size of the US economy and more than double the size of the Japanese economy.

The way in which the US has addressed perceived threats to its self-asserted (and largely effective) global hegemony during the 20th century follows a clear pattern. Defeated serious competitors (Japan and Germany) are now firm allies. Japan and South Korea remain quasi-tributary states harbouring very large US military outposts. Given the number of US bases in Germany, it might also be so described. The USSR is no more and Russia, whilst still powerful in certain ways, no longer presents any sort of dominant existential threat. The rest of the leading economies in the world (outside of China) are allies or at least largely share certain primary political values -- with common membership in the OECD and over-lapping membership in NATO in many cases. India, for all potential -- and its recent economic growth - remains mainly a huge developing world country with a similar population to China. The remaining nations around the world present no significant challenge to US global supremacy in view of their small size, terrible poverty, or habitual local conflict.

In the history of US foreign policy experience, China, is in a class by itself. Moreover, as immense as China’s difficulties are, they remain less intractable than the range of acute challenges facing the US. Today several Americas seem to co-exist uneasily within the US.

The US mood has gone from being sorry for China, then helpful to China to being increasingly hostile to China. American views have significantly shaped the discernment of China around the world over the last 100 years. They continue to do so.

In November, 2019, Ian Bremmer wrote, in the leading American weekly Time, that the rest of the world, including the US, should want China to succeed. About a year earlier, however, Fortune magazine was just one US outlet to declare that “The US-China Cold War Has Begun”. That story from October, 2018 argued that, “Vice President Pence’s speech to the Hudson Institute Thursday has been widely portrayed in the global press as an official declaration that the world’s two largest economies are engaged in a “New Cold War.” It is hard to read it any other way”. It is this Cold War view, rather than the Bremmer view, which now holds sway in the US.

Australia’s relationship with China is plainly, very different to that of the US. The acute difficulty for Australia, however, is that Washington, building on the special relationship, has been highly insistent that Australia join in the intense, American-led Sino-containment project.

Examined rationally, however, the strategic position is very clear. First, Australia has a huge vested interest in seeing the rise of China maintained and enhanced. Next, China, as an extraordinary advancing power within the Asia-Pacific, plainly raises distinctive challenges for Australia’s foreign policy posture. China does not, though (viewed outside of hawk-like think tanks) purposefully threaten Australian in any serious way. The US, on the other hand does threaten Australia at a measurably more significant level: first, by hectoring diplomacy, encouraging intensified antipathy towards the trading partner who has done more to remake Australia in the last thirty years than any other; and secondly, due to the serious hazard of being drawn into yet more US military adventures -- possibly involving certain levels of forceful confrontation with China.

Despite this clarity, foolish decisions may still be made in Canberra.