Going down together

Friday, 18 November 2011 

For a Prime Minister that started off by making such a virtue of not being interested in foreign affairs, Gillard certainly seems to be getting into it now. Having based her leadership on the John Howard Handbook for connecting to the “real” Australia, she now seems to have got to the second chapter that says there is no real basis for doing so anymore. So, like Howard and Rudd, she must look overseas for some source of authority; Rudd being the only one to get it from day one, with the other two needing to flounder about at home before reaching the same conclusion.

It is the far-reaching importance of international developments for political authority at home that has guided Australian foreign policy and required a very close adherence to whatever the global political power is up to around the world. It has required Australian troops to be involved in every major military venture of the UK, then the US, to a degree probably unmatched by any other nation on earth.

For a while now, this reliance has been something of a discreet embarrassment in Australian commentary; to the point where even the domestic impact of world-shattering international events can be airbrushed out of the political narrative. But what is becoming more awkward is the realisation that not only is the domestic agenda unlikely to provide much comfort, the international one is not exactly providing many solutions either.

For if Rudd was quick to pick up the importance of seeking an agenda overseas, he was also arguably the first to clearly face what the Australian political class has not faced since Federation, the premature political decline of the power around which that international agenda would revolve.

The decline of the US is happening in a highly unusual way. Britain held on to its pre-eminent political position decades after it lost its economic one. The US, on the other hand is losing global leadership while no other power comes even close to its economic weight.

The US has been struggling with this since the end of the Cold War took away its primary issue around which to organise international affairs. It tried to revive the international coalition with the first Gulf War in 1990, supposedly in defence of a non-existent Kuwaiti democracy and an evil tyrant who was so evil that as soon as the war was over, the UN Coalition left him in place and tooled up enough to deal with those of his countrymen who took the Coalition’s side. It was second time farce in 2003, with the US unable to even muster a UN Coalition this time outside the UK, and a few sundry hanger-ons. The resulting unilateralism only exposed the US’s loss of influence even more.

Obama’s election is recognition that the US can’t get away with straight-out unilateralism anymore, and that alliance building is a necessity. The problem is that it still leaves the question on what basis to build an alliance.

This is where China comes in. Commentary about China tends to be taken too much on its own terms rather than the prism through which US decline is discussed. As a result, the threat and power of China is exaggerated just like Japan in the 1980s and the clapped-out Soviet Union were both over-hyped for much the same reasons. Claims that China will be over-taking the US in a few decades are usually done by drawing a straight line up for China and a straight line down for the US, as though the economic progress of either country is going to happen that way.

Academics are claiming that Obama’s visit and announcements on troop deployments are “all about China”, but it’s not really. This is about the US, and it finding a new rationale for leadership in the region. That’s why the grounds for this strengthening of the alliance are so tenuous, with the US talking up the need to strengthen “cyber security” just before Obama’s visit, but, unsurprisingly, barely registering with commentary during it. The fact is that never has a troop deployment been announced for so little reason, other than a vague anti-China conern that can’t be expressed. It is just as well the anti-US left is so dead on its feet these days, otherwise … well, OK, not very much would have happened anyway.

The irony of all of this is that there is pretty well no two countries with less interest in breaking off with each other than the US and China. It is not just that China’s role in financing US debt exposes it to the future of what the US decides to do with that debt, nor poses a problem for the US on how to “deal toughly with your banker” as Clinton put it back in 2008. Since Tiananmen, when the Chinese bureaucracy turned decisively to foreign capital and the capital markets to privatise itself, it has hitched itself politically and economically to what happens in the international order. Rudd claims that the main problem is to integrate China into the international order. In reality, the main problem is managing the pivotal international role that China, with all its political and financial distortions, now already plays.

All this suggests that there is little ground for constructing a new Cold War against China given its already pivotal role. It doesn’t even sound like a basis for policy in the region, but a recipe for even more incoherence and instability from what is still the world’s leading economic and military power.

It also suggests that even if Gillard is looking overseas for some framework, she is unlikely to find one. Some are talking as though Australia has the luxury of choice between choosing between China and the US, but it doesn’t. The Australian political class is stuck with the US no matter how incoherent its foreign policy becomes. The contradictions of trying to isolate China and yet keeping it onside has already come up between the Prime Minister and her Foreign Minister on how close to be to India and was on display last night.

The political chit-chat is on how helpful the Obama visit will be for Gillard’s flagging popularity. Probably some, but that’s not really the point. Are there grounds for anything more lasting such as Howard received for a while from the War on Terror and Rudd from climate change? Unlikely.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 18 November 2011.

Filed under International relations

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4 responses to “Going down together”

  1. Paul on 18th November 2011 12:18 pm

    Something that feeds into this discussion is George Friedman’s “The Next 100 Years”. One of the points he makes is the fragmentation of China over the next decade.

  2. Riccardo on 18th November 2011 1:47 pm

    No, not gonna happen.

    China has had nearly 100 years of civil war up to 1949, yet during that time no regionalism emerged. Yes, warlords and factions planted themselves in different cities, but only to claim to be the government of one China.

    Japan stripped Manchuria aka North East China from the rest – it was reabsorbed painlessly in 1950. Hong Kong and Macau had been separate for 150 and 400 years respectively, yet the best you can say is there systems of government differed by culturally and identity wise, the same. Taiwan is complicated by the legal and practical realities. Japan fifty year possession changed Taiwan’s identity somewhat, so that it is still Chinese but not like the People’s Republic.

    It has dropped the fiction that it is the One China but has a robust political culture and defence force that says it isn’t going to be absorbed lying down.

    So no, China will not fragment politically. Economically, China is already several dozen sub markets so no change there.

    Australia’s problem as I see it isn’t the US or China but its own melting frontier – an identity that is only going to decay further. And that’s not a bad thing – because this ‘reconnecting with the base’ that ALP and LNP seem to push each election is thinly disguised racism and boganism and the sooner it is put in the rubbish bin the better.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 18th November 2011 9:25 pm

    I think the threat of the fragmentation you saw in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union being repeated in China was pretty real – for the same reason, a differential impact of the introduction of the market and the bureaucracy’s ability to benefit from it. It was the implicit point made by Deng’s Southern Tour in 1992, to the Beijing party after the Tiananmen clampdown that market relations were already well established in Guangdong and fragmentation was a threat unless the market was embraced at the highest level.

    What we saw was the turn to the international capital markets and an effective privatisation at the highest level. This has alleviated the threat of a break-up, but the fragmentary threat of the market still remains, in my view.

    I agree the real political problem is at home, but the political class’s reliance on the international agenda makes the decline of the US a real problem as well.

  4. Riccardo on 19th November 2011 9:33 pm

    I’m just not sure how you would fragment China geographically.

    China is already fracturing in other ‘alternative’ ways along class, party faction, urban/rural and coastal/inland lines. But there isn’t much enthusiasm for real geographic split.

    There was an interesting pro-Cantonese language protest a few months ago that blew out into the largest protest Guangzhou had seen under the communists. While some of it was genuinely heartfelt for the language, much of it would have been general discontent with Communist rule no matter the issue. Some Guangdong ‘nationalists’ stuck websites up but other than that, no serious interest in that.

    Yunnan is the only Han province I know of that has actually tried to go a-wandering. It really is a long way from Beijing. Other parts of China fragmentation are around contested borders (many of those) large non-Han ethnic groups and the Taiwan dispute.

    If Taiwan is interested in independence they could show it by surrendering the two island chains of Fujian Province that they hold.

    Back to Australia, its not just that Australian nationalism is twee, but also that it does not link to anything real. Not having a state religion has deprived this country of one of the tent pegs that holds others down with ritual and history. Our national myths are recycled and tend to have undue amounts of the kindness of foreigners in them. Yanks, OTOH, happy to tell you they killed British people to get their country.

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