U.S.-China: The View from Australia

One curious aspect of the Stateside discussion of the U.S.-China relationship is how rarely it takes into consideration how things look from the perspective of our friends and allies in the neighborhood. So we hear about the need to balance, hedge and integrate in order to maintain regional stability, but often our friends in the region — Australia, Japan and South Korea, in particular — are portrayed as mere pawns on our chess board, without real concerns and interests of their own. That’s particularly shortsighted at a time when Japan is actively seeking to recalibrate its foreign policy posture, and when all three are independently pursuing free trade and/or regional security frameworks with China.

As a remedy to that, try this Hugh White essay on President Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to Canberra. Unlike most things White writes, I’ve got some major disagreements with this one. The most significant among them is his characterization of the Bush administration’s China policy, one of that administration’s most successful and well-conceived foreign policy initiatives. Given the amateurism with which the Bush administration approached the Middle East, Europe and Russia — and with which it ignored Latin America — it also came as a pleasant surprise. So I’m hard-pressed to understand how White can claim that Bush “ignored the implications of China’s rise for American power,” or that Obama needs Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s help to understand it. (For all his fluency in the Chinese language, Rudd has had his own considerable difficulties in managing the bilateral relationship with China.)

On the other hand, that Obama needs Rudd’s help — as well as Hatoyama’s and Lee’s — to successfully navigate China’s rise is obvious. But their willingness and ability to deliver must be understood in the context of their perception of the strategic landscape. And this, from White, gives a good idea of what that looks like:

The source of America’s problems lies deeper than Bush’s dysfunctional leadership, in a pervasive mismatch between objectives and resources. And that is as true under Obama as it was under Bush. On almost every issue Obama has been unwilling either to scale back the objectives he inherited from George Bush, or to devote significantly greater resources to achieve them. The result is that, just like Bush, he finds himself declaring objectives he has no means to achieve – pacifying Afghanistan, denying Iran nuclear weapons and eliminating North Korea’s, managing Russia, brokering peace in the Middle East, and really getting out of Iraq. Where he does set new goals – like the elimination of nuclear weapons – he shows scant sign of doing anything serious to achieve them. As we can see from Rudd’s very lukewarm response on Afghanistan, there is nothing in any of this that offers much to Australia.

Again, there’s stuff in there I don’t agree with. In Afghanistan, for instance, Obama significantly upped the resources committed to the war. He has also made the follow on START agreement with Russia a priority, and has invested significant political capital in his diplomatic efforts to curtail the Iranian nuclear program.

But in some ways, that only makes White’s argument more urgent, by underlining the disconnect between available (if dwindling) resources that have been expended and the results obtained. It also complicates the challenges facing U.S. policy because it dramatically undermines the perception of U.S. credibility as a strategic partner.

The challenge for our Asian friends is to not have to choose between the U.S. and China, and the challenge for our Asian allies is to not have to advertise their choice (already made) of the U.S. But both depend on the continued viability of the U.S. as a credible choice. And while in reality it clearly is, perceptions in the neighborhood will play an important role in determining just where in the “balance, hedge and integrate” spectrum to come down.