Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Keating speech exposes 'China Choice' flaws

Keating speech exposes 'China Choice' flaws
Published 29 Nov 2013 

I have been trying to understand how it is that Australia is the only US ally in Asia where former heads of state embrace the thesis that the US must gracefully surrender primacy in the Asia Pacific and seek accommodation with Beijing.

No former prime minister of Japan (not even the loopy Yukio Hatoyama), or former president of Korea or the Philippines, or prime minister of Canada, would ever argue for such a condominium between Washington and Beijing. So Paul Keating’s recent speech in China is worth a read.

Mr Keating is a self-declared adherent to the Hugh White China Choice school. As he argued in introducing Hugh’s book at the Lowy Institute last year, the main audience for that thesis must be the US. What was interesting about the Keating speech in China was that the target audience was the Chinese themselves. His list of things China must do to make a bipolar condominium work with the US was quite reasonable – and exposed exactly why the China Choice thesis is so flawed.

In his speech, Mr Keating called on China to repudiate by word and deed the threat to use force; to offer its vision of a new regional order; and to define how Japanese security would be ensured in that new order.

Several weeks later Beijing declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands and threatened to take defensive action against unauthorised aircraft entering the zone. [fold]

So as a practical matter, how would a new US-China concert of power apply in this circumstance? Should the US now accept Chinese assertions of military control over the East China Sea? And if that were US policy, would it be at all surprising for Japan to respond by hedging with more independent military capabilities of its own?

China’s vision of the future regional order no doubt involves economic cooperation and diplomatic summits. But Beijing’s strategy also relies on military and mercantile coercion of states that resist China’s territorial claims and assertion of control over the East and South China Seas. That is why US partners and allies are not embracing the China Choice thesis. None want confrontation between Washington and Beijing, but neither do they want the US to pre-emptively surrender ground to China and leave them exposed.

Presenting the future of US policy towards China as a choice between accommodation and war overstates the bipolarity of Asian international relations and the inevitability of Chinese ascendance and American decline.

It also obscures the reality that it is China that must make a choice. Mr Keating’s speech in China was refreshingly honest about that last point. The inevitable conclusion is that the US has only one choice: to continue working on trust and cooperation with Beijing while simultaneously shoring up regional alliances and partnerships to ensure that China is dissuaded from thinking coercion will work.

Photo courtesy of the White House.

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