My latest piece on Online Opinion, discussing Rudd’s admission – via WikiLeaks – of his brutal realism towards China.
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s admission of his “brutal realist” approach to China exposes a continuing problem with its rise.
While benefiting from its economic rise, the West – and the US in particular – is struggling to formulate a clear strategy that would see China completely acquiesce to international norms and practices. The US and its allies – Australia in this case – hold grave fears of China potentially rising to become a revisionist state that would seek to challenge the international order.
This fear is embedded in a realist thought that views the entire world within a zero-sum paradigm, with the underlying assumption that all states will seek to maximise their power should the opportunities arise. Those opportunities for China, realists would argue, have arrived.
Thus, one will often read US and Australian military spokespeople talk of China’s recent naval expansion, or rapidly expanding and modernising military, pointing to it as a sign that China has “global ambitions”. China’s growing military power supposedly justifies the “brutal realist” stance taken by Rudd, in which the Australian Foreign Minister advises Hillary Clinton that force should always remain an option.
Advocates of a tough stance often overlook the simple fact that China’s military spending is significantly dwarfed by the annual mega billions the US continues to throw at its own military, regardless of a global recession.
The blunt fact is that the US military is so far ahead in technological and conventional firepower that it will take China much of this century to even come close to being a technological rival. China’s reluctance to join US President Barack Obama’s bid for a nuclear free world stems from Beijing’s accurate perception that a denuclearised world would only increase American power, as the US is clearly unrivalled in conventional warfare.
Talk of China’s growing military power is a mis-founded fear often employed by military strategists in the US and Australia to gain a larger slice of the annual budget.
Revisionist or conformist?
The Wikileaked conversation between Rudd and Clinton highlighted a common fear found in Western capitals vis-à-visChina’s undemocratic, Communist nature. China needs to integrate “effectively into the international community” and become a responsible power.
Such ambitions are not ill-intended. We all want China to become a responsible world power that will not seek to drastically reform the international order and cause massive upheaval.
But once again, such fears are ill-founded. China has shown no sign that it intends to become a revisionist power, or challenge the existing order. Indeed, the Communist China of post-Civil War 1949 had other plans, but this country is long dead. To the contrary, China abandoned its revisionist strategy when it decided to open its doors in 1972.
China has since benefited from the current international order, which has propelled its economy and status to that of a great power. For the past three decades, Beijing has conformed to the international norms and practices largely defined by US world power. It is a market economy, a member of the WTO and a major participant in American-style global economics. That it is playing the game better than the Americans is no reason to suddenly drum up fears of a revisionist China.
It is simply not in China’s interest to challenge an international system from which it benefits. China’s major driving force is economic. A slowing of China’s economic growth greatly jeopardises its internal stability, thus it is incomprehensible that China would pursue global policies that would endanger it.
If we turn the tables, however, we will see a China that is surrounded by a sceptical neighbourhood and an encroaching US that has revitalised its hubs and spokes alliances with the region, potentially adding India to its list of local China-containing allies.
Another important fact is that China has not had a war since its failed assault on Vietnam in 1979, whereas the US has fought several. If there is a genuine fear currently circulating the Asia-Pacific, it is in Beijing.
Rudd’s poor realism
This brings us back to Rudd’s ill-founded realism on China. As a country that is benefiting significantly from China’s rise, advocating strategies to our superpower friend that seek to contain and agitate China is neither in Australia’s interest, nor the world’s. China is already conforming to international norms, primarily in the economic domain. Its integration into the international system has been an ongoing, and so far, successful process for the past 30 years.
China’s military is no match for American military might, and won’t be for the near future.
The Chinese have shown no intention to conquer its neighbours, save for legitimate territorial disputes over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The real fear is that should the US and its regional allies push China into a corner, it may well produce an outcome they initially sought to avoid: a powerful Chinese adversary. Thus, realism as a theoretical drive to developing policies towards China is a redundant source with potentially dangerous consequences.
If the US and Australia want China to become a partner in maintaining Asia-Pacific security, they must start treating it as one.