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Parsing the 'pivot': Beijing's view of US bases

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COMMENTS

23 November 2011 17:48

Amy King is a PhD student at Oxford University.

Much has been made of China's response to President Obama's decision to rotate 2500 American troops through bases in the Northern Territory. But was there more to the Chinese response than was reported in the Western press?

Australian and US media have quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Liu Weimin, as stating that '(i)t may not be quite appropriate to intensify and expand military alliances and may not be in the interest of countries within this region'. Yet far less attention has been given to the words in the first half of Liu's sentence. He states (emphasis added):

Against the backdrop of international economic downturn, and international society's consensus and focus on promoting development [Zai guoji jingji xingshi dimi, cu fazhan chengwei guoji shehui gongshi he jiaodian de Beijing xia], intensifying and expanding military alliances may not be appropriate, and may not be in the interest of countries within the region or international society.

This is significant. This full statement indicates that the US decision to strengthen its alliance with Australia is interpreted by Beijing within the broader context of the global economy. It suggests that Beijing views the strengthening of such alliances as potentially destabilising to economic development. Moreover, the mention of economic development in the same breath as the response to the US basing decision is also a tacit reminder to the US and Australia that their ongoing economic prosperity depends on stable ties with Beijing.

Should Australia be concerned by this? From one perspective, the answer is 'no'. As one reader of The Interpreter has aptly asked: 'Given that South Korea and Japan have both a large US military presence and significant trade links with China are there any lessons that can be learnt from their experiences on the correlation between these two issues, if any?' History shows us that China has long been willing to trade with states, such as Japan, with a large US military presence on their territory.

Indeed, during the early Cold War — before US-China rapprochement and the normalisation of Japan's relationship with the PRC — China made strong attempts to trade with Japan. Beijing did so despite the presence of sizeable US bases on Japanese territory, despite the strengthening of the US-Japan alliance in 1960, and despite US efforts to limit Japanese trade with China during the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1965, when Japan and China were still officially strategic opponents in the global Cold War, Japan became China's largest trade partner. During the early Cold War, Beijing demonstrated its willingness to trade with Japan, and in particular to supply Japan with raw materials, despite the knowledge that this trade strengthened the Japanese economy and enhanced the strategic threat that Japan, allied to the US, might pose to China.

Beijing did so because China badly needed industrial goods from Japan for its own economic development. That is, Beijing prioritised its own economic development over the negative externalities of Japan's gains from trade.

Of course, the China of the early Cold War is not the China of today. Nevertheless, China's past behaviour should give Australia at least some reassurance that Beijing might not retaliate to the Darwin decision in ways that harm the Australian economy. While Australia and the US depend on China for their ongoing economic prosperity, China, too, is highly dependent on this economic relationship.

However, if we consider the US basing decision within the broader context of the US 'pivot' to the Asia Pacific, then Australia may have more reason to be concerned about China's response. In particular, Australia ought to think seriously about the implications of the double-punch combination of the US basing decision and the announcement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) developments at the recent APEC meeting in Honolulu.

As Shiro Armstrong notes, the strict standards on intellectual property rights, labour, the environment, and the regulation of state-owned enterprises that the US is pushing for will make it extremely difficult for China (and other transitional economies) to qualify for membership in the TPP. This could be interpreted by Beijing as locking China out of a key regional economic grouping.

Until now, the East Asian regional order has been managed through a mix of US bilateral alliances with states in the region, and the political and economic engagement of China through regional organisations such as APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum. China has become increasingly comfortable with this order since the late 1990s, and indeed has prospered from it.

The double-punch of the Darwin basing decision and the TPP move represents a significant and potentially destabilising shift to this regional order. History tells us that China has long placed a premium on economic development in its strategic thinking. The Chinese Foreign Ministry's statement linking economic development to the Darwin basing decision demonstrates that this view is of more than historical interest.

We should be concerned if Beijing interprets US moves as economic containment of China, or as disrupting a regional order that has enabled China's economic rise. The economic ramifications of the US 'pivot' are at the forefront of Beijing's mind. Perhaps we should be more mindful of them too.

Photo by Flick user louyse

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