17 October 2018
Three years ago, a China expert in Washington, Michael Pillsbury, controversially predicted the date by which China secretly intends to take over the world: 2049, the hundredth anniversary of communist rule. Drawing on ancient Chinese history, his book The Hundred-Year Marathon argued that Beijing is applying 2500-year-old lessons of statecraft to deceive the West, exploit its technology and eventually usurp the role of the United States.
The thesis has captivated the White House – Donald Trump recently described Pillsbury as “the leading authority on China” – and is now shaping Washington’s approach to the region. Tensions are increasing, and nations such as Australia, stuck between two great powers, are being forced to rethink their traditional approach to diplomacy and security.
Washington’s shift to an offensive stance on China reached its peak with a dramatic speech two weeks ago by US vice president Mike Pence, which was described as marking the possible outbreak of Cold War II. Pence listed a range of political and economic grievances, including Chinese theft of intellectual property and the oppression of Muslims in the Xinjiang region, and pledged that “we will not stand down”. The speech was delivered at the Hudson Institute, the conservative think tank where Pillsbury works.
As commentator Cary Huang noted in the South China Morning Post: “The speech marked a fundamental change in US policy since Nixon of ‘engagement’ with China to a strategy of ‘disengagement’ or ‘containment’.”
Or, as Pillsbury told C-SPAN: “There is a kind of paradigm shift going on right now … We’re moving toward a much more antagonistic relationship with China.”
Pence’s concerns were largely justified, but they mark a narrow prism through which to view China, a nation still busily trying to lift its people out of poverty. Despite its authoritarianism and the lack of clarity surrounding many of its policy motivations, China’s conduct – according to most observers – often seems wayward and confused, hardly pointing to a multi-millennial plan.
Canberra needs to avoid following Washington in its Pillsburian approach. Australia should continue to see China as a great land of opportunity, challenge and risk.
But the worsening rift between Washington and Beijing appears troubling in light of another bold prediction offered by some members of the commentariat: that the rise of China will inevitably lead to conflict with the United States.
Australia should do all it can to ensure that the worst of these prophecies do not become self-fulfilling. This will require some delicate diplomatic balancing.
The challenge was evident this week following US national security adviser John Bolton’s recent comments, suggesting that Australia and Britain were planning to do more to assist naval operations in the South China Sea. Asked to respond, Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, remained non-committal, saying that Canberra was focusing on “verbally” pressing its case to China. A Chinese government-linked think tank quickly weighed in, warning Australia that siding with the United States could affect investment and tourism.
The growing tensions in Asia are also posing starker questions for Australia. China’s rise has already begun to destabilise the region – a process that Trump is accelerating. Australia should try to prove the doomsayers wrong but prepare for a future in which they are correct. This leads to difficult questions about the nation’s defence plans.
Some commentators have suggested that Australia will need to increase its defence spending, which is already at AU$35 billion a year. Others have raised the question of whether Australia will need to consider developing nuclear weapons, potentially short-range (as opposed to city-destroying) missiles that could assist the military to fend off maritime threats. As Stephan Frühling points out in an essay in the latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs, Australia is not about to develop such weapons. But, he says, the seriousness with which this question is being asked – including by several former deputy defence secretaries – is already a sign of Australia’s anxieties about its future in a contested Asia.
And the leaders of the major powers are doing little to instil calm. As Pillsbury noted in a tweet on 3 October: “The leading authority on China Is President Trump - not me!”