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Game of Thrones Turns Sicilian As China Tells Australia ‘Kiss the Ring’

Does China plan to make Australia an offer it can’t refuse?

Barack Obama’s historic nine-day tour of America’s Asia-Pacific allies last November inaugurated a renewed US commitment to the region. Along the way, the president made his first visit to Australia, where he left quite an impression. Addressing the Australian parliament, Obama announced an agreement to send an additional 2,500 US marines to the northern port city of Darwin.

Strategically, the troop basing agreement is of little practical value. But the symbolism was potent and its import not lost on anyone, least of all the Chinese; the United States, Obama was saying, is here to stay. China’s growing economic and military clout had begun making many countries in the region nervous, but Obama’s tour, and the series of subsequent follow-ups, has helped assuage those doubts.

But American grand strategy does not operate in a vacuum. China has recently begun pushing back, and its resistance reached a new level last week when a retired Chinese general made a series of provocative comments to an Australian journalist. Investor’s Business Daily (h/t Instapundit) explains:

If there were ever any doubts about China’s aggressive military intentions in the Pacific, its warning to Australia last week to choose itself a U.S. or Chinese “godfather” ought to remove all of them.

In what can only be construed as a direct threat to a top U.S. ally, Song Xiaojun, a “retired” Chinese general, told the Sydney Morning Herald that “Australia has to find a godfather sooner or later.”

“Australia always has to depend on somebody else, whether it is to be the ‘son’ of the U.S. or ‘son’ of China,” Song said, adding that Australia had best choose China because it all “depends on who is more powerful and based on the strategic environment.”

Nor was the timing of the remarks likely a coincidence. Australia’s new foreign minister, Bob Carr, had just arrived in Beijing to begin discussions with his Chinese counterpart. And while General Song’s comments were full of bravado, they simultaneously betrayed China’s heightened unease with the expansion of America’s military and diplomatic commitment to Asia-Pacific.

They also confirmed the greatest fear among Australia’s foreign policy community – that increasing hostility between the US and China will eventually force Canberra to choose between the two great powers. In a recent speech by Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister and later head of the International Crisis Group, he enumerated the central geopolitical challenges confronting Australia in the 21st century. Number one, he said, was “to avoid having to make a zero-sum game choice in our relations with China and the US.”

China is Australia’s largest trading partner, both as a destination for exports and a source of imports. Two-way trade is worth $100 billion. And while the US and Australia share strong cultural ties, there is a prominent – but very much a minority – viewpoint among Australian analysts that believes China’s economic muscle will loosen the bonds between Washington and Canberra. Hugh White, considered one of the country’s eminent strategic thinkers, said two years ago that, ”the very thing which is keeping us afloat economically [China] is undermining the structure which keeps us safe strategically [America].”

White’s argument hinges on the belief that economics trumps all. Yet he ignores the fact that the US is the number one source of investment in Australia. When trade and investment figures are taken together, American economic activity in Australia actually surpasses that of China.

Despite the braggadocio exhibited by General Song, the notion that Australia must decide between China and America is a false choice. As Bob Carr pointed out, Australia is just one of two countries that have a strategic defense dialogue with China; it was the first Western country to assist China’s humanitarian relief mission in Chengdu last year; and Australia was also the first country to hold a joint live fire exercise with the Chinese navy.

Meanwhile, Australia and the US remain the closest of friends. Australian troops have fought alongside their American counterparts in every war since Australian federation. The countries have shared a defense pact for nearly sixty years, one which Australia invoked after the horrors of 9/11, not because Australia feared for its safety but as a show of support for the US at a time of crisis. Australian elites continue to respect and admire America – the Australian/US alliance is one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement between the two major political parties. The alliance also enjoys overwhelming public support, as demonstrated by a recent poll from the respected Lowy Institute, which found that around 85 per cent of respondents support the alliance to some extent.

As the new century unfolds and wealth, power and influence shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Australian diplomats and policymakers will have to navigate some treacherous strategic waters. But regardless of the close economic ties between China and Australia, Washington can be confident of the continued, steadfast support of our friends Down Under.

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  • Mrs. Davis

    No doubt the Chinese have economic leverage over Australia. Until their economy pauses. And then it won’t. And that pause will not be long in coming. That also may have something to do with Song’s timing.

    But the cultural ties of Britain’s outcasts will not soon be split. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Oy, Oy, Oy!

  • Eric from Texas

    If the Chinese have told the Aussies behind closed doors to “kiss the ring”, I’m sure the Aussies responded by suggesting that the Chinese could kiss another part of the Aussies’ anatomy.

    Can’t imagine the economic reformers in China were thrilled with the comment by General Song.

  • vanderleun

    This will just make Australia want to send out those purchase orders to Japan for one of their “assemble in hours” nuclear weapon component systems they have lying about. You know, the ones that snap together with the fit and finish of a new Toyota.

  • Kansas Scott

    I would love to read VM’s take on the odd language and tone of Chinese diplomacy. The wording always seems to be slightly off-key to the Western ear.

    I know diplomatic speak has always been its own language but China’s just comes across as weird. Will their diplomacy eventually adapt or is this another area where they are so confident in their rapidly arising supremacy that they believe the rest of the world will adapt to them?

  • Anthony

    Third person hearsay is no way to base an Asian-Pacific policy nor a step in the ladder of Grand Strategy. Offshore balancing is always difficult (the separation of water) and even more so in a Pacific with a strengthening China; Australia operates in Pacific region – a different geopolitical challenge in 21st century. Our alliance is historically strong yet there exist a potential hegemon in Northeast Asia and choices remain.

  • WigWag

    Unless I am mistaken, Via Meadia has some perspicacious Australian readers; it would be interesting to get their take on this post. In my limited experience (I’ve been to Australia only three times) Australians are even more pro-American than Americans are.

  • Walter Sobchak

    6. I am with wig-wag. Also, I would like to know how Australian domestic politics will affect the situation.

    For those interested in the Chinese economic situation:

  • Eric

    My immediate thought is General Song forgot the most important rule of generalship – never give an order which you know will not be carried out. Talking like that just hits every hot button in Aussie deep psyche. Yes, I’m an Aussie, and I have a lot of time for Chinese people and I’ve worked with many.

    My suggestion to the PLA – read your own classics. Start with Sun Tsu.

    The former foreign minister Mr Rudd was fluent in Mandarin and was a former diplomat. Yet he had a very er, pragmatic view of Chinese priorities. Bob Carr, on the other hand, is a scholar of the Civil War and is close to the US. In other words, big Chinese own goal.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    China is a bully and its saber rattling will just send its neighbors even further into America’s arms. We may see the formation of a new Asian Defense Treaty Organization in response in the near future.

    The Chinese are insane if they think they are going to get what they want with more threats, when their threats have already caused their neighbors to seek out US military support. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time.

  • sarah in nc

    read someone’s suggestion that we give Australia some of the nukes we plan on getting rid of.
    I like the idea, like giving anyone means to self defense against predators and thieves.
    an international 2nd amendment for our allies?

  • Luke Lea

    Just received my copy of Richard McGregor’s The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers. Hope WRM and his minions read it if they haven’t already. All kinds of interesting new information inside it — new to me anyway. E.g., I had no idea Shanghai’s economy was mostly based on State Owned Enterprises not the “export enterprise” of points further south. Where does all the money come from? Customs duties for one. Wait, I thought there were no import duties in China. Or does that only apply to us? McGregor seems to be quite ignorant of the Hukou system of peasant-proletarian exploitation. At least he makes no mention of it.

    Anyway, here’s a quote I like:

    “The giant Chinese market had become more important than ever. Just ahead of the Shanghai auto show in April 2009, monthly passenger car sales in China were the highest of any market in the world, surpassing the U.S. A month later, Wang Qishan and a team of Chinese ministers met Catherine Ashton, then the E.U. trade commissioner, and about 15 of Europe’s most senior business executives in Brussels to hear their complaints about Chinese market access. Sure, Mr. Wang conceded after listening to their problems over a working lunch, there are “irregularities” in the market. “I know you have complaints,” he replied. “But the charm of the Chinese market is irresistible.” In other words, according to astonished executives in the meeting, whatever your complaints, the market is so big, you are going to come anyway. Even worse, many of the executives realized that Mr. Wang was right. . . .

    So what the developed countries need to learn from this whole process is to make up their minds whether they want to pursue confrontation or co-operation with China,” said a senior official. p. xvi

    Apparently Australia is going to have to make up its mind too.

  • Luke Lea

    About that hukou system:

    “”What is unique about migration in China is that the two aspects of internal migration (movement and citizenship) can be totally disparate; i.e., one can move to a new place (for example, because of a job change) but can be permanently barred access to community- membership-based services and welfare. People who have moved to a new place but do not possess local citizenship (hukou) are referred to as the non-hukou population, meaning that they are not de jure residents even though they are de facto residents. . . The situation of Chinese migrants without citizenship, of course, is not unique in the international con- text of migration. Many so-called “guest laborers” working in foreign countries, sometimes for years, without local citizenship, fall into this category. But few countries have applied such a system to their own citizens in modern times. In China, this group is commonly called the “floating population” or “mobile population” (liudong renkou). Its size has grown rapidly from a few million in the early 1980s to the present level of about 150 million (Chan, 2009a). . .

    “In the cities, in addition to the lack of access to many basic social ser-vices, these migrant workers also face many formal and informal obstacles to securing jobs other than low-skilled ones (Chan, 1997; Solinger, 1999; Li, 2003). The lack of local hukou for migrant workers, combined with other unfavorable conditions such as the plentiful sup-ply of labor and lack to access to legal information and support, has created a huge class of super-exploitable, yet highly mobile or flexible industrial workers for China’s new economy, now closely integrated into global trade networks (Lee, 1998; Alexander and Chan, 2004). The “China price,” mainly due to its low labor costs, was the lowest among major developing countries (Chan and Ross, 2003).24 Even the low wages promised are often not paid for months or years.25 Many of these workers are vulnerable, and often subject to exploitation and labor abuses (A. Chan, 2001). Their “temporary” nature and lack of local citizenship also make them easily expendable. The current global financial crisis has hit seriously China’s export sector, leading to unemployment of about 20 million migrant workers (Bradsher, 2009), which is widely believed to have contributed to a much larger volume of “Spring Movements” this year (2009 nian, 2009). . .

    “The new approach of “freeing” peasant labor has served very well China’s economic growth strategy of being the world’s low-cost producer. Effectively, this has helped defer the arrival of the critical “Lewis turning point”26 so that China can continue to draw labor from rural to urban areas and export-processing zones at rural-subsistence wage rates. Du Runsheng, one of the most respected and experienced central officials overseeing the rural economy, has remarked that for two decades since 1980, there has hardly been any real increase in the wages of rural migrant workers in the coastal areas, despite rapid economic growth (Sanyi, 2009).”

  • Luke Lea

    Another priceless quote from McGregor’s book, The Party: “Jia Qinglin warned that China needed ‘to build up a line of defense to resist Western two-party and multi-party systems, a bi-cameral legislature, the separation of powers, and other kinds of erroneous ideological interferences.'”

    At least we know there’s a line in the sand. As Moses would say, “Which side is the Lord’s side?”

  • Swearjar

    The Chinese like to bluster, but if their track record among regional states over the past couple of years is any guide, it’s not doing them any favours.

    Yep, I’m Australian. China probably thinks exports = influence, and to a degree they are right. But it doesn’t give them the ability to overturn generations of pro-Western and pro-US sentiment among the majority of Australians. And Chinese threats are only going to make Australia, and most other regional states, cling even tighter to the US as it debates its own regional posture in coming years.

    While he remains one of Australia’s pre-eminent strategic thinkers, on China at least I’m not sure Hugh White’s voice resonates quite as much in Canberra as it used to.

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