As China rises, it demands a deference we should be wary to give
  • Tue, 06/01/2010 - 12:00


The Sydney Morning Herald
Peter Hartcher
June 1, 2010

Australian public opinion has made history. We have the distinction of becoming the first people in the world to name China as the world's leading economic power - even before the Chinese themselves.

When the annual Lowy Institute poll asked 1000 adult Australians "which one of the following do you think is the world's leading economic power?", 3 per cent said Japan, 8 said the EU, 32 per cent said the US and 55 per cent said China.

On the conventional measure, this not only makes us the first, it also makes us wildly wrong.

The US and Japanese economies are both bigger than China's, based on the conventional measure - total annual economic output, or GDP.

Japan, by this measure, was still one-eighth bigger than China last year and the US was a towering three times as large as China. This year or next China will probably eclipse Japan, but it's still decades away from matching the US, even assuming that China can continue its current breakneck growth rate.

But there are other ways of defining a "leading economic power". Vigour, for example. For the past five years China has contributed more to the growth of the world economy than any country.

Or net national wealth. China has a vast wealth of assets over liabilities, the opposite to the debt-laden US.

Or the quality of economic management. The US has done itself deep damage. The world knows that it was poor US policy that led to the savage recession and the collapse of the trans-Atlantic economy. China, by contrast, has, so far, managed adroitly. It is now seeking to cool its overheating engine, trying to avoid an American-style bust.

The executive director of the Lowy Institute, Michael Wesley, thinks opinion seems likely to be reflecting this larger story of China's emergence: "The fact that Australians have made that mental leap shows how closely they've been paying attention."

This has big implications for our foreign policy and our US alliance. If the Australian public see China as Australia's pre-eminent economic interest, will we expect Canberra to put China first?

"You could say that, but you'd have to choose your words carefully," says Wesley. "I would use the language of China as the centre of gravity. It is the greatest gravitational force in structuring our foreign policy environment, and other great powers in the region, including the US, are reacting to it."

But China's ever-growing power does not mean that other countries necessarily show increasing deference. Indeed, Beijing's increasingly assertive self-interest is likely to have the opposite effect.

Look at China's response at the weekend, for example, to the latest outrage by its ally, North Korea. The regime of Kim Jong-il made an unprovoked torpedo attack on the South Korean navy corvette, the Cheonan, killing 46 crew.

Pressed at the weekend by the leaders of Japan and South Korea to discipline North Korea, the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, conspicuously declined. He refused even to acknowledge North Korea's culpability, which has been affirmed by a five-nation investigation by marine experts.

Wen emerged from a summit with Japan and South Korea on Sunday to say that "the most pressing task now is to appropriately deal with the grave impact of the Cheonan incident, gradually ease the tense situation and, especially, avoid clashes".

The problem is that the clash has already happened. And, once again, China, the only big power with any real influence over Pyongyang, is showing no inclination to restrain its rogue client.

China pretends that the status quo is peaceful, rather than acknowledging that the status quo is actually a highly destabilising series of North Korean provocations, attacks and killings. And the aggressor is its ally.

By taking this approach, Beijing demonstrates that it cares more for power than peace. It protects its dangerous client to preserve its own sphere of influence. This is not the behaviour of a great power that wants to reassure its neighbours.

Speaking of countries' reactions to China's growing power, Michael Wesley observes: "There is a logic here, and it's paralleled by a lot of other countries in the region - as countries' economies become ever more enmeshed with China's, the feeling of ambivalence towards China becomes ever more pronounced.

"Countries seek to construct offsetting relations with other powers. That's the case in Australia, but also in Vietnam, India, Indonesia and other South-East Asian countries."

The Lowy poll confirms that Australians are increasingly anxious about China's rise. On the one hand, Australians have made an unprecedented acknowledgment of its economic ascendancy, and at the same time express growing alarm at its intentions.

Asked if China's aim is to dominate Asia, 60 per cent of Australians last year said yes. This year that proportion had risen to 69 per cent.

Should Australia, the pollsters asked, join other countries to limit China's influence? Last year 51 per cent replied yes; this year 55 per cent did.

Similarly, about two-thirds of Australians disagree with the proposition that Australia's interests would not be harmed by an increase in China's power. And a rising majority - up from 50 per cent last year to 57 per cent this - of Australians say that the government is allowing too much Chinese investment.

The more Australians see of China's power, the more anxious we become about the consequences. And the more we resist its encroachments.

Will China, the pollsters asked, become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years? A minority, 46 per cent said yes, but the minority is fast becoming a majority, up by 5 percentage points in a year.

So it's probably no coincidence that the same poll also shows the level of Australian public support for the ANZUS alliance is at its highest in the five-year history of the survey.

The more we fear China, the more we look to the US for reassurance, it seems. This puts the Australian government in an increasingly conflicted position. As China becomes economically more powerful, how should Canberra nevertheless retain a strong alliance with America?

Wesley suggests that the trick is for Washington to understand the pressures on Canberra, and for "the Americans not to expect Australia to make ever more explicit statements of allegiance".

Yet that seems to be exactly what the Australian public increasingly wants - a clear US alliance as a strategic chaperone to our hot Chinese dalliance.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.

Categories: