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China versus the US: it is serious

By Chris Lewis - posted Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Will tensions between the US and China increase, and should Australia continue to side with the US? I argue yes to both.

Some commentary downplays the impact of a more powerful China. The ANU’s Hugh White argues that China’s rise does not threaten Australia, but it will change our world which means that we “have to consider how we can help bring about a good outcome, and help prevent a bad one”. White argues that Australia, hopefully supported by other Asian nations, should try to convince the US to relinquish primacy in Asia and share power with China and the other major powers in a Concert of Asia including Japan and India.

Brian Toohey also downplays the Chinese threat by noting it has no overseas military bases; that the CIA and Australian intelligence assess Beijing’s overall military stance as being defensive; and that the US defence secretary Robert Gates has indicated a lack of concern by cancelling production of the F-22 fighter, “the plane best suited to air-to-air combat against the Chinese air force”.


But recent events justify ongoing Western interest in China’s communist leadership:

There was Beijing’s successful pressure on Japan’s authorities to release Zan Qixiong, the Chinese fishing boat captain detained after ramming a Japanese Navy ship when caught fishing illegally in Japanese waters. Prior to his release, Beijing cancelled high-level meetings with Japanese officials, stopped groups of Chinese tourists from visiting Japan, four Japanese in China were suddenly arrested on charges of photographing Chinese military establishments, and abuse was directed at Japan from Chinese government and media sources.

There was Beijing’s refusal to support UN condemnation of North Korea’s sinking of South Korean naval ship the Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors.

There is Beijing claims of sovereignty over virtually all of the South China Sea with China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi telling the ASEANs at a meeting earlier in 2010 they should do what they are told because China was a big nation.

And, there was China’s unsuccessful warning of “negative consequences for the relationship between Norway and China” if this year’s Nobel peace prize went to a jailed Chinese dissident (Liu Xiaobo).

Fortunately, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, on his recent visit to the US reaffirmed the Australia-US alliance and again urged the US to become more engaged in Asia. Rudd also rejected White’s thesis that Australian diplomacy should try and convince the US to give up its strategic primacy in Asia in order to formalise a power-sharing arrangement with China. Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition leader Tony Abbott also expressed a similar sentiment.


The need for a more aggressive policy response is increasingly evident. At the military level, while the US spends about 46.5 per cent of total global military spending of $US1.531 trillion in 2009, China has increased military spending most since 2000 by 217 per cent compared to the US with 89 per cent: China’s 2009 level is the second highest in the world at 6.6 per cent.

As noted by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, China is pumping many billions of dollars into new warships and submarines to challenge US Navy rule in East Asian waters. China is also developing an anti-ship missile with a range of nearly 1,450km which could threaten America’s ability to project power and help allies in the Pacific.

Fears that US and Western influence is waning may hopefully prove premature.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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