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Rudd, Turnbull and Latham: Handling the China-US Issue

December 1, 2011

Notwithstanding my recent comments (see below) on how welcome it is to see Kevin Rudd calibrating somewhat the Government’s mistaken handling of Obama’s visit and our relationship with China, I think this has a long way to go. Very telling that Malcolm Turnbull, in his Edward Dunlop lecture on Monday, felt obliged to say:

While all of us galahs in the political petshop are talking about the rise of Asia, many are apparently labouring under the misapprehension that while everything can change in the economic balance in our region, nothing will change in strategic terms.

In other words, China will acquire a bigger strategic role to go with its economic growth. As Gareth Evans puts it, “Great powers do what great powers do.” In the meantime, there is no evidence China has aggressive, expansionist or interventionist instincts.

The American reaction to China, however, displays all the neuroses of the world’s most insecure empire, always imagining its enemies at work to bring it down. I recall an Australian-American Leadership Dialogue around 1999 where Rich Armitage, later to become a Deputy Secretary of State, was talking about war over the Taiwan Straits and demanding to know whether Australia would take a hand. “Are these people nuts?” was the whispered response of all the Australians.

Turnbull warned about Australian governments becoming “doe-eyed” with Barack Obama and getting distracted from the need “to maintain both an ally in Washington and a good friend in Beijing” which is, he added, “after all, our most important trading partner.” It is noteworthy, surely, that a Liberal has been able to detect this.

When did we decide to favour America’s most mistaken instincts? Do we talk down their paranoia and sabre-rattling when our leaders talk? Do we have as our goal a peaceful accommodation between the aspirations of China and the national interests of the US? Why did we allow the announcement about Marines rotating in the Northern Territory to be made in association with the US President’s strange speech attacking China? Who makes these foreign policy decisions and what discussion is there?

Mark Latham in today’s Financial Review notes that after 20 years of telling the Australian people we do not need to make a choice between security with the US and trade with China, the Government looks like it has blundered into siding with the Americans in their clumsy lurch towards containment of China.

Mark Latham writes:

Future historians will ask this simple but compelling question: how did a small trade-dependent nation on the fringe of the South Pacific ever sandwich itself between the two largest powers of the North Pacific? How did it wedge itself in the middle of the great geopolitical tension of the 21st century: the rise of China as the world’s largest economy, and the slow-sliding decline of American influence?

Just because Mark Latham makes the criticism doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

  1. December 1, 2011 12:41 pm

    I’m not sure how you could ‘stop’ Obama from making certain comments in his own speech. As for Julia’s handling of the whole situation, there was definitely a media beat-up around her comments, some (eg Sky News) falsely attributing ‘alarm’ to her re China’s reaction, when she had no such reaction.
    Re Latham’s comments – begs the question: geographically and historically how could Aus avoid being wedged in this way? Some constructive alternatives would be more useful to the debate than simple criticism.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      December 1, 2011 1:31 pm

      Visits at this level are scripted. Speeches are cleared. Aust should have insisted the address to the Aust parliament was not the forum for a rallying call to gang up on China. As Bill Clinton said to me, ” Some people in my country believe America must always have enemies.” Well, they don’t have to be ours.

  2. December 1, 2011 8:49 pm

    Via our “special relationship” I think it may primarily be Australia’s role within The Asia Pacific Region to inform The U.S. when they are being neurotic and insecure.

  3. Cameron Bruce permalink
    December 1, 2011 9:45 pm


    I agree that the US overplays the ‘China threat’ (witness their regular Congressional hearings, Pentagon reports and general carry on about the renminbi) but I disagree with the premise of Latham’s criticism: the inevitable decline of the United States.

    Certainly the United States is facing some serious economic challenges and China is expanding its military capabilities but both of these get drastically overplayed in the media and by many commentators. The decline of the United States has often been predicted, no more so than by its own citizens and thus far, it has emerged from challenging periods bigger and better than before. Granted, the political dysfunction in Washington appears uniquely debilitating but it is also somewhat anomalous in the broader history of US politics and may well be ‘corrected’ in the future when voters realise the consequences of the mid-term elections.

    As for Australia being ‘wedged’ between China and the United States, there are some flawed assumptions in Latham’s critique. Firstly, it assumes that China’s economic might will translate in to commensurate strategic influence, which is simply not the case. Not only does China have to spread its wealth amongst 1.3 billion citizens compared with 300 million in the United States but it will take decades for the Chinese armed forces to modernise and expand just to reach a point where they could compete with the United States as it stands currently. Even if the United States simply maintained its current force levels, China would not reach parity until at least 2050 if not later.

    Keep in mind, too, that any future conflict between the United States and China would be fought at sea and in the air, an area in which the US has more than half a century of experience and China has almost none.

    Don’t get me wrong, Australia will have to make some important decisions about how it manages the two bilateral relationships but I don’t buy the argument that it will be forced to take sides in some grand conflict between the US and China.

  4. Michael Longley permalink
    December 1, 2011 11:48 pm

    Latham is usually right on substantive policy.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      December 2, 2011 6:40 am

      Won’t much policy substance when he was leader, certainly not in respect of his key policy commitment to Medicare Gold, universalist welfare policy if there ever was one.

  5. December 2, 2011 12:32 pm

    John Pilger or Noam Chomsky give great talks on Obama and Empire. Here is Pilgers:
    The Labor Party should be embarrassed and should stop playing media politics. I’m sure with 40% of English retirement savings invested in Russia our Mother Country supports such action.
    The Liberal Party put us in this mess and Labor should get us out of this mess. How many government bonds will pay for our army before we have real issues in this country.

    Iran stopping oil sales to the Euro is a much bigger problem. Selling wars and the Printing Presses is not the job of politicans and not since John Wren as the Australian Government been caught centralising wealth into a few hands!!!!!!!

    The Hardy Family live on so does Chifley and so does Bill Brown from Whitlam. This is what happens when one family takes over a country and Wendi Deng is a CHINESE COMMUNIST!!!!!,-unite

    So if China is intending to buy $1 Billion worth of Housing Debt why would someone like Carr write such drible?
    Who runs the Labor Party?
    Who runs the Liberal Party?

    Total joke from Crikey!!!!!!

    Just fear mongering to a dumbed down society full of know it all educated derelicts with failed policies and failed politicans!!!!!!

  6. Peter Pando permalink
    December 3, 2011 4:37 pm

    Dear Mr Carr,
    If it is true that a great power does what great powers do, then the U.S. is as entitled to look to its own interests as China is. What would you think the U.S. might see as more beneficial to the world’s future? A Chinese bully, swinging the weight of its population around at other countries and the environment like a war-club, or a China which recognise that there’s considerably advanced power gathered and organised outside the small backyard it has regarded as the centre of the universe for millennia? China has not had modern experience as an empire with the powers from which Great Britain and the U.S. have developed, and given the way it treats its lesser citizens and its traditional appellation for all non-chinese races, it is obvious that multi-racial, multi-cultural Australia will serve its own interests by siding with the equally multi-racial and multi-cultural U.S. Those who think there’s an even balance of interests between trade with China and human rights with the U.S. have their priorities totally unbalanced.

  7. Kerry Wright permalink
    December 3, 2011 7:53 pm

    As we fall all over ourselves with glee at having weathered the GFC so well thanks to China, we need to remember a key issue: China is and continues to be brutal in the extreme with its old ‘friend and neighbour’ Tibet, and was the main cause of Burma’s continued oppression.

    We need to be careful not to meet China’s greed and avarice with OUR greed and avarice! At least US (for whatever reason, and their handling of issues like BOTH men involved in Wikileaks will tell us a lot) represents democracy and human rights – even if it does not always live it.

    If US can ensure freedom for Burma, and some sort of redress fro Tibet in the UN (rightfully) then perhaps fewer Tibetans will be so brutally tortured while we sip out red and read nice books!

    We must have no part in the current Tibetan genocide, for money, or it will come back on us for generations. In actual fact, we could play a huge part in ensuring the continuation of the legitimate dialogue (50 years after invasion) process. After all they ARE our friends, love us so much, and want us to take in so many more ‘peaceful’ Chinese people and investments, do they not?

    We should not ‘take sides’, unless there is conflict, but nor should we mince words.

  8. Mark permalink
    December 3, 2011 9:23 pm

    The US has reasserted itself in the Asia Pacific because missteps by the PRC in its regional relations. Apart from some high-level statements from China claiming the entire South China Sea as PRC territory, which haven’t gone down well in the region the PRC habit of trying to play off SE Asian countries against each other was seen to fail spectacularly in Bali at the East Asia Summit which China faced a unified SE Asian voice.

    So your sanguine assertion about China’s peaceful intentions or even China’s basic diplomatic skill against a seasoned player like the US government, seems naive to me.

    Furthermore, your narrative of a rising China and declining US is simplistic, with China’s continuing economic growth and political stability not givens in the future.

    So, not paranoia from the US or a strategy of containment but clever regional politicking to do what a superpower does.

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