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Nothing inevitable about the Asian Century

By Graham Cooke - posted Wednesday, 8 August 2012

A Hong Kong student of English, asked by his Australian teacher to make a presentation, produced a monologue on the merits of mainland China, asserting it would overtake the United States as the dominant economic and military power within 10 years. Urged by the teacher to develop the theme with supporting evidence he looked blank. "There is no need for evidence, it is a fact," he said.

This bland acceptance of China's inevitable rise is part and parcel of the nation's education system. As Maoist-style communism declines in the face of Deng Xiaoping's free-wheeling economic miracle, the government in Beijing is replacing it with an uncomplicated and uncompromising brand of nationalism. In this view China has been held down by rapacious Western powers through most of its recent history, but is now returning to its rightful place as the Middle Kingdom, the centre of the earth. And if evidence is needed, the pace of its economic expansion over the past couple of decades, and the growing prosperity of its people is there for all to see.

However, Hong Kong's refusal to be impressed by these achievements in the 15 years since it became a Special Administrative Region at the end of British rule has irritated the Beijing leadership. It has leant on the Hong Kong Government to introduce a one-sided portrayal of the glories of China into the school curriculum. The plan is being resisted by the independent-minded Hong Kongers who, not for the first time, have taken to the streets to oppose it, and good on them.


It is not surprising that this mix of materialism and nationalism fits well with the acquisition culture of the mainland's rising middle class. What is surprising is that the propaganda receives broad acceptance in the West. Economists, academics and journalists, often relentless in their exposure of faults at home, uncritically proclaim the Asian Century as a fait accompli. There is almost universal acquiescence that the boot is being transferred to the other foot and before long we will all be dancing to Beijing's tune.

This is a dangerously fatalistic attitude, especially in Australia where many see it as the price we have to pay in order to keep China as the number one customer for our raw materials. The fact that China actually can't do without our exports while we, with some admitted short term pain, could find other buyers, does not seem to occur to anyone. To take one example: the only other reliable major exporter of iron ore is Brazil which would be hard-pressed to make up the shortfall if Beijing decided to cut its imports from Australia.

There have been a number of occasions where China might have liked to make this kind of gesture – the publication of the Defence White Paper which named China as a potential threat to the region; the Stern Hu affair and the lauding of exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer (considered a terrorist by Beijing) at the Melbourne Film Festival are three - but at no time during these incidents did our trade suffer.

Certainly there were protests, a few inconsequential exchanges were cancelled and veiled threats of further action made, but always things quickly settled down and normal service was resumed.

Nor has there been any retaliatory action over the strengthening of Australia's alliance with the US and the stationing of American forces on our soil. China knows well that anything other than mild protests would be futile and would emphasise the weakness of its position, for with the exception of North Korea, it has not been able to convince a single nation in the region that its growing influence would be beneficial.

As John Lee, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney's Centre for International Security Studies writes in a new book Australia and China at 40: "As strategic tensions increase between China and the United States, and also between China and East and Southeast Asian states over disputes in the East China Sea, Yellow Sea and South China Sea, the evidence that key states in the region are willing or else compelled to bandwagon with China is scant".


He describes the regional preference for continued strategic American primacy in the region as "overwhelming" based on a number of factors including, quite bluntly, that the US has no territorial ambitions in the area. The implication being that China clearly does. Beijing's heavy handed treatment of sovereignty issues with Vietnam and the Philippines over the Spratly and Paracel islands, and its outrageous claim to the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, leaves no doubt that it harbours expansionist desires.

It would be the height of folly for Australia to give any concessions to China over our relationship with the US. To do so would be a betrayal both of our liberal democratic traditions and of other nations in the region who, with a few exceptions, share those ideals.

Also writing in Australia and China at 40, the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Michael Wesley, worries that our growing dependence on China for so much of our raw material exports has eroded the sense that we control our own destiny.

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Australia and China at 40, edited by James Reilly and Jingdong Yuan and published by UNSW Press, deals with the 40 years that have passed since diplomatic relations were established between Australia and China.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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