In his speech to the 21st Century Council in Beijing, former prime minister Paul Keating has once again demonstrated his adroit perception for the nature of these times and the direction of our century. If Keating’s prescriptions are adopted by China, we may all look forward to a more peaceful and stable future; certainly one that is far preferable to every conceivable alternative.

Keating is correct in saying that a lot of attention has been paid to America’s options in the wake of China’s rise, these forming the backbone of Hugh White’s China Choice.

And intuitively, this makes sense. It appears more likely that America would make a mistake, as it is being asked to give something up, whereas China just needs to be circumspect about the extent of its future ambition. It is the disparity in outlook between those who incur a pay cut versus those missing out on a raise – much more difficult to endure loss than to forgo an unrealised gain. 

However, China well remembers how it took a major cut in the past, and short of total capitulation by America, an accord between China and the US is impossible.

This is because China does not see itself as emerging, but re-emerging. In the minds of the Chinese, America’s prominence in Asia is merely a passing blip in the great Han story, occurring at a time when China was unusually weak. According to this narrative, America will recede, much like the Golden Horde 700 years before it, whereupon the 'natural' Asian order will return.

This is what China really means by 'harmonious world'; a restoration of those long centuries of history, only intermittently disrupted, where China is the uncontested master of Asia. 'Peaceful rise' in this context means the willful retreat of the US in the face of this inexorable shift, and the meek acceptance among China’s neighbours of the old status quo.

It is absolutely true that great things are seldom achieved by pessimists, and here Keating shows his enduring robustness in leadership and ideas. However, looking at this from Beijing’s point of view, the chance of its leaders accepting these responsibilities in perpetuity is nil. This is not because Keating’s prescriptions are not wise and laudable; they are. It is merely that China would sooner choose war than abide them.

Photo by Flickr user jasonpearce.