We need to talk about China

We need to confront the China challenge, however uncomfortable it makes us: Hugh White responds to Clive Hamilton

Hugh White

International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, The World

4 May 2017

Australia’s ability to confront the rise of China will depend on its courage to debate uncomfortable questions rather than shut them down, Hugh White writes.

In a recent post, Clive Hamilton says I’m being too easy on China, and too cavalier about Australian values, in arguing, as I did recently, that Australia must think rather more deeply than we have hitherto about how we are going to manage relations with a country whose power in Asia is unprecedented.

I argued that the scale of China’s power over coming decades is going to make it very hard for us not to fall further and further under its sway, and that as that happens we will find ourselves challenged to decide how far, and in what ways, we are willing to compromise our interests, and our values, to conform to China’s wishes. Those decisions must be based on prudent judgments about what it will cost us not to conform to China’s wishes, and how willing we are to pay those costs.

This is not a comfortable set of questions, and it is not surprising that many people would prefer to evade them. There are several ways to do that. One can argue that China will not be all that powerful. One can argue that even if it is very powerful we will be able to resist its influence relatively easily and without much cost. Or one can argue that even if the costs and risk of resisting its influence are very high, we have no choice but to do so because our values are inviolable, and any consideration of compromise is unthinkable.

More on this: China capitulationism: what's missing from Hugh White's China calculus

Professor Hamilton touches on each of these arguments in his critique of my China in the World (CIW) lecture, but he skips rather quickly over the questions of how powerful China will be, and how hard it will be to contain its power. He endorses some commonly held judgments about the fragility of China’s economy and political order and consequently seems confident that America and its Asian allies can keep China in check without much cost or trouble.

In particular, he dismisses the thought that containing China might involve a risk of major war. I do not share his confidence. For reasons I have explained at length elsewhere, including in my CIW lecture, I am much less sure than he is of either China’s weakness or of America’s strength – especially in light of events in Asia and America over the past few years and months.

Professor Hamilton devotes more attention to the third mode of argument mentioned above. He introduces it with a reference to 1938, and the argument that follows elaborates the idea that the lessons taught by the appeasement of the Nazis in 1938 should be our guide today in dealing with the rising power of China. Like many others, he concludes that we must not compromise with China today because it was a mistake to try to accommodate Hitler then.

I’ve analysed this argument elsewhere [The China Choice pp166-169], so suffice here to say that the value of the analogy to our current debate today depends on how closely the two situations resemble one another. Rising powers are not all the same, so before applying the lessons of 1938 to the choices we face today we should pause to ask how far today’s China resembles Nazi Germany.

Often one finds that the 1938 metaphor is introduced not to develop an argument but to close it down. Mention of appeasement is often intended to imply that even to consider how to accommodate a rising power is not just unwise but illegitimate and even immoral.

From the tone of Professor Hamilton’s post, one might be forgiven for thinking that this was his intention here. If so, he is not alone. Very few people in Australia feel comfortable addressing the immense implications of China’s rise for the future of Asia and for Australia’s place in it. I understand why, because the issues are indeed very difficult and unwelcome. But our future success as a country depends on us having the courage to debate them openly and fully, which was what my lecture attempted to do.

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8 Responses

  1. Clive Hamilton says:

    I appreciate Hugh White’s response to my critique of his CiW lecture. I would like to make two points of clarification where I think he has misread my argument.
    First, I am under no illusions about the possible major costs Australia would need to bear in order to maintain its sovereignty against the creeping influence of China. The question I pose is this: How much is our freedom worth? For me, it is worth a great deal and we should be prepared to make sacrifices in some areas of our lives.
    Second, in my opening analogy I was not implying that the present Chinese regime is comparable to Nazi Germany. I think that analogy is misleading and unhelpful. My point was simpler: that in order to understand how to respond to China we must comprehend the nature of the regime we are dealing with, something I believe Professor White does not appreciate. I could have used a different analogy, such as an academic in 1950 advising the US government on how to respond to “Russia” without making an attempt to understand the nature of the Stalinist regime.

  2. Sam Roggeveen says:

    Clive, you say our freedom ‘is worth a great deal and we should be prepared to make sacrifices in some areas of our lives.’ Can you be more specific? Would you, for instance, favour a substantial increase in defence spending to reduce China’s ability to coerce Australia?

    • Clive Hamilton says:

      Sam. It’s a very big topic and I will be setting out my views in full in the book I am writing.

  3. Clive Hamilton says:

    Freudian slip?

    “We Need to Talk About China”

    “Kevin’s mother struggles to love her strange child, despite the increasingly vicious things he says and does as he grows up. But Kevin is just getting started, and his final act will be beyond anything anyone imagined.”

  4. Michael Heazle says:

    At last we reach, after nearly a decade, the central question on which this debate rests.

    That is, what, if anything, is worth risking the prospect of going to war? Hugh White’s argument logically concludes, ultimately, that nothing is.

    We should, rather, just adapt our values and ideas of independence as a sovereign nation state (i.e., everything that gives meaning and purpose to everyone’s lives) to whoever has — or in his case will have (HW knows the future obviously) — the biggest stick, and never mind the carrots by the way.

    Sounds to me like unconditional appeasement of the worst kind!

  5. KK Wren says:

    Shouldnt the Godwin Rule apply here? Whoever evokes the Nazi comparison loses the argument. IT s an indication of supreme intellectual laziness at best and of self righteous delusion at worst.

    The Nazis spent well over 10 percent (near 20 percent by 1939) of GDP on Military build up; it had created a systematic super-race /expansionist philosophy and a racial enemy, who was subject to genocide.

    China today even by the most devout cold war warriors’ standard is no where near doing any of those. The most they may claim is certain broadly defined rights abuse and the even more user-friendly and flexible crime of ‘cultural genocide’ (just so as to insert an emotive word where it has otherwise no role).

    I am not saying that the Chinese system is to my liking orin anyway better. But they dont claim to have an exportable political model at all. Instead it is us who fervently deny the legitimacy of any other sociopolitical system other than ours. And our hatred of ‘the other’ seems mightily selective to boot.

    Every nation has its own national interests to further and defend. China is playing the same game as are we and others. But their increasing capability at it seems to be deemed morally reprehensible. I mean, how dare they seek to change the geopolitical status quo as established by the West in their neighbourhood and trade routes? And how lucky that the status quo as established by the West is so perfect that it is good for everyone and should be accepted by everyone!

    Again I hope we are more than a match in this game against China. But to pretend somehow that they are the Nazis and we are on the side of the angels is rather dishonest and potentially dangerous. Afterall every warmonger (including Chinese ones) is armed with moral righteousness, and believes their rival, evil and hence less human.

  6. M.Dhanasekar says:

    Correctly analysed, & well presented, China, is using the police of I , ME , MYSELF, leads to Power corrupts, absolute Power corrupts absolutely, ; Power should be used like jute steam, otherwise, like a bamboo sticks it will break beyond reganation, & there are lots of doubts about the SILK ROADS, after a few years the true colour will be revealed, India’s stand is appreciatable

  7. Zach S says:

    Here we have the difference between ideals and the real. We can want whatever ideals appeal to us and then, in the end, we must contend with the real. China most certainly will continue to gain dominance, for two reasons in particular. One being the new Asia Development Bank. This puts China firmly at the helm of Asian power in the 21st century. Read: all roads lead to Rome. The second reason is China’s new One Belt, One Road. There’s no stopping it, and there’s no stopping its enormous anticipated influence.

    Sure, Australia could make sacrifices to lessen China’s impact, but the simple question to be asked is: which will be of greater value, retaining Australian ideals, or prospering along with the real Asia of this century. If China is the new superpower in this neck of the world, does it make sense for the local neighbors to turn up their noses at the prevailing future?

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