What is Australia’s plan B for China?
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What is Australia’s plan B for China?

The US may not win, and China may not be easily appeased either. We need more eggs in more baskets. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Plan A is, put most simply, for the United States to “win”. The US remains Australia’s best hope for balancing Chinese power and avoiding a China-dominated region.

But that’s far from guaranteed. The US has not been challenged by a rival like China before. Countering it will require a deft mix of diplomacy, geoeconomics and military deterrence.

Washington is alive to the challenge but preoccupied with security challenges elsewhere and beset by domestic problems.

America’s economic game is fundamentally limited by bipartisan protectionist sentiment. The return of Donald Trump or someone like him to the White House would greatly exacerbate its problems.

How should Canberra hedge against US deficiencies? One possibility would be to accommodate growing Chinese power. Australia could publicly distance itself from the US and remain silent about Chinese actions in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, the East and South China seas, on the India-China line of control, and towards Taiwan.

Hugh White, emeritus professor of Strategic Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University in Canberra, recommends publicly committing not to militarily defend Taiwan.

But there is little reason to believe that such precipitate concessions would be supported by the Australian electorate or moderate China’s behaviour.

A better way for Australia to prepare for US shortcomings would be to put more eggs in other baskets.

As Allan Gyngell, of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, notes in his history of Australian foreign policy, Fear of Abandonment, all Australian governments have based their foreign policies on the US alliance, regional engagement, and the “rules-based order”.

The US is still aiming to have China accept something like the existing rules-based order. In Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s words, “we will shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open, inclusive international system”.

If that fails, then Australia should set a more modest goal of reducing the risk of conflict.

The management of great power relations is an established subset of the rules-based order. It doesn’t deal with the big normative questions of how the world should be organised. Rather, it includes pragmatic and often piecemeal deals designed to reduce friction and conflict. The best examples are the US-Soviet strategic arms control agreements reached from the 1970s onwards.

A game of chicken

The US-China standoff on global issues is essentially a game of chicken. Third party intervention is needed to break the deadlock.

The US and China aren’t doing enough, on their own, to manage these risks. In their November 2021 virtual summit, US President Joe Biden encouraged Xi Jinping to agree to “commonsense guard rails” to prevent the rivalry from “veering into conflict”.

But after his recent meeting with Blinken at the G20, China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said, “no amount of guardrails would work” unless the US resumed strict compliance with (Beijing’s interpretation of) the One China policy.

US-China rivalry also exacerbates the threat of climate change.

The Biden administration insists it is open to co-operation on global issues but won’t make former president Barack Obama’s mistake of dialling down competition in order to smooth the way.

Beijing rejects this neat distinction between competition and co-operation. Wang says Washington “wants climate change co-operation to be an oasis in the relationship … however, if the oasis is all surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later the oasis will be desertified”.

The US-China standoff on global issues is essentially a game of chicken. Third party intervention is needed to break the deadlock. A collective approach is needed, both because middle powers can’t manage great powers, and we live in a more multipolar world.

For example, the 1972 US-USSR Incidents at Sea Agreement, which helped reduce miscommunication and miscalculation on the seas, is often cited as a useful precedent for US-China guardrails.

But Australia needs to be included in any such agreement, something brought home by China’s People’s Liberation Army’s recent dangerous and unprofessional interceptions of Australian P8 surveillance aircraft.

By putting more emphasis on the management of great power relations, Australia is likely to find itself lining up more with countries in our region, especially those in South-East Asia which view the animosity between the US and China as a greater threat than one side or the other.

By recasting Australia’s objective as “strategic equilibrium” during a recent speech in Singapore, Foreign Minister Penny Wong appealed directly to that sentiment.

But achieving that equilibrium will require more active and even ambidextrous diplomacy. As well as working with the US in China-balancing groups, such as the Quad and AUKUS, Canberra will have to co-operate more with groups that are demanding that both sides reduce the risk of conflict and increase co-operation on global issues.

An early dilemma for this approach is posed by the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This treaty came into force in January 2021 and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese committed to signing on before he won the federal election.

Because no nuclear power has signed on, the treaty is largely symbolic and aspirational. There would, however, be at least some tension between Australia’s obligations under the treaty and its reliance on US nuclear deterrence.

But it is hard to see how Australia can reclaim its status as a leader in arms control without finding some way to reconcile the treaty and its US alliance commitments.

Australia won’t be able to adopt a plan B without occasionally irritating Washington.

Areas of expertise: Australian national security policy; International rules and norms; US foreign policy; the Middle East