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.
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.