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China’s aim is dominance

Des Moore sees rising tension in Asia as China and the US seek to contain each other’s interests in the regions

Australian Financial Review, 27th Feb 2002 published a slightly edited version of the following.

President Bush’s recent visit to China went off well but did nothing to reduce the reason why China, though not our present or inevitable future adversary, looms large in considerations of Australia's future security.   Not basically because of Taiwan (the subject of two conferences in Australia this week), nor because China is in 'our region' but because it is a great power now and could be a superpower tomorrow.

To become the world's hegemon requires of a country that it be Eurasia's dominant landpower and the world's dominant sea, air and space power.  So the USA can never be the world's hegemon.  But China could.

That day, if it ever comes, is a very long way off.  In the meantime, China is bound to cause quite enough problems to be getting on with.

That is not because China is a revolutionary state, though it once was, and though its still being a one-party state doesn't help.  Rather is it because the larger and more powerful you are the more you are able to impose your will on others.

Since China fifty years ago became a subject and not an object in international affairs, it has become immensely more powerful economically and militarily.

Naturally, its ambitions have grown apace.  Not for territorial aggrandisement, apart from recovering Hong Kong and Taiwan, but for unfettered primacy in what it regards as its rightful area of influence -- North East and South East Asia and surrounding seas.

Within that area, China's old foe Japan is the only serious obstacle to China's hegemony; and Japan has self-imposed limitations, both economic and military.  So only the USA, outside the area but with many and large interests and armed forces within it, stands in the way.

That is why China, alone in the area (apart from North Korea), wants the US military presence removed; and also why all the other countries want the USA to remain -- to reassure them that they do not need to give in to Chinese overt or covert intimidation.

China, say some, wants to enjoy growing influence abroad without being blocked by the US, while the USA wants China not to dominate Asia.  But the fact is that the only way to stop China's almost effortlessly dominating Asia is by the USA's blocking it.  So what some seek - a modus vivendi that accommodates the power and ambitions of both - cannot be had.

This does not matter, provided China does not try by the threat or use of force or aggressive diplomacy to remove the US stationed and visiting military presence in the area.  And of that foolhardy ambition, China fortunately gives no sign.

Still, China does have another ambition which in the next decade or so might bring about war with the USA:  the recovery of Taiwan, for which China refuses to rule out the use of force.

The chances of war over Taiwan have been put at somewhere between 1 and 5 per cent - but some worry that this is a very high likelihood for such a dangerous possibility, and seek a role for Australia in reducing that possibility by our talking now to China, but principally to the USA.

What apart from large motherhood generalities Australia would say to them is not vouchsafed.  But the worriers make plain that the most talking should be done in Washington, "where there is a lot of work to be done".

The implication that the USA, not China, is the real problem would be resented by Washington.  Rightly resented, for war over Taiwan, in the most unlikely event of its ever coming about, will not be initiated by the USA but either by Taiwan or China:  by Taiwan's declaring independence, or by China's setting a date certain for Taiwan's recovery and being ready to use force if Taiwan does not comply 'voluntarily'.  Moreover, it is the USA which holds back both from tumbling over the brink.

If China nevertheless were to engage in unprovoked aggression against Taiwan and the USA responded, should Australia send combat forces to assist the USA?

Undoubtedly yes.  For one thing, our obligation under ANZUS is to "act to meet the common danger" if US armed forces, public vessels or aircraft were subjected to armed attack in the Pacific.  "Act" is not defined and could be satisfied by our giving diplomatic support.  But that would not satisfy Australia's national interests.  For Australia could not afford to see China win and the USA lose.

And though some say the USA to win would not need our combat assistance, for us not to offer it when we stood to gain -- or lose -- so much by the result would be immoral by making us a freeloader, would be forever remembered by the USA, and would be the end of ANZUS.  Moreover, our combat assistance would not be beside the point:  our conventional submarines especially would have advantages, in the relatively shallow Taiwan Straits, not enjoyed by the USA's nuclear submarines.

Des Moore is Director, Institute for Private Enterprise and an Australian Strategic Policy Institute board member.