Some of the reactions to former prime minister Paul Keating’s comments on China have been hysterical.
He’s been called “unhinged” and “crazy”. But surely – amidst his less considered comments — he raises important questions.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong says Keating is a man out of time and underplaying the China military threat.
But Keating would also think Wong is out of time, ignoring the shift in global power.
Can the so-called rules-based order command the world?
Can China be contained? Should it be contained?
Why should China, the biggest engine of economic growth in the world, accept a US-led order?
Can we avoid war?
Don’t we have to take the world as we find it and not as we may wish?
As we read “Red Alert” headlines warning of impending conflict, these are questions that should urgently be asked.
The reality of China’s power
To Keating, holding onto American liberal hegemonic dreams — even if desirable — is foolish. Worse, dangerous.
He says we can – indeed must — live with the reality of a powerful China.
China is an indispensable nation. It is the world’s biggest engine of economic growth.
The China Communist Party has utterly transformed China and, in turn, the world.
More than half a billion people have been lifted out of poverty at breakneck speed.
China is a legitimate nation. The Communist Party is a legitimate government.
Australia doesn’t dispute that legitimacy. The United States doesn’t dispute it.
China is part of the global order. Its rise has been facilitated by the global order. Australia has benefited from China’s wealth.
But the “liberal order” doesn’t speak to the world as we find it.
As political scientist Michael Barnett has put it — this was, in any case, not a liberal world order but “a world order created for liberal states”. China rejects US pre-eminence.
A Western-dominated order doesn’t reflect the 21st-century world.
The economy is changing too
The economic gravity has shifted. Western economies are being left behind. By 2050, according to financial giant PwC, the US will be the only Western country in the world’s top 10 economies.
America is a long way from the beacon of democracy it promoted last century.
It is a tired, divided country. Its wealth gap is obscene. The opioid epidemic, gun violence and suicide – let alone the ravages of the COVID epidemic – mean life expectancy in the world’s richest country is declining.
Ask Black Americans, Native Americans, poor white Appalachian and rust-belt Americans whether they believe in the American dream.
Is America the best bet for world peace?
Joe Biden says don’t bet against America. But the Taliban did and won.
North Korea is betting against America, building a nuclear arsenal in defiance of the US.
China is betting big against America.
Russia is betting against America right now in Ukraine.
America may win some or many of those bets. But that’s not assured.
And what if there is a war?
In the worst-case scenario of war with China, the US is far from guaranteed victory.
Admiral Phillip Davidson, head of Indo-Pacific Command, two years ago warned China is becoming more “emboldened” and the military balance in the region had “become more unfavourable” to the US.
He also flagged that by 2030 on current projections, China could surpass American nuclear capabilities.
US think tank the Rand Corporation, looking at security challenges in the Asia-Pacific between 2030 and 2040, says while America spends more on defence than China, it is spread thin globally.
Beijing can focus on its own backyard, bringing the “two powers into something like military parity in the region and, perhaps, give China superiority in its immediate vicinity … It will be increasingly able to challenge America’s ability to directly defend its allies and interests on China’s periphery”.
What would victory look like anyway?
War would devastate the world economically. The human cost to the globe would be catastrophic. Any war involving the two biggest powers in the world, China and the US, would potentially result in millions of deaths.
Big powers test their limits
Keating points out the hypocrisy of the world order. Again, is he wrong?
He does minimise China’s egregious human rights violations and persecution – allegations of genocide – against the Muslim Uighur minority.
But China reminds us that the US was built on the genocide of First Nations people. America has never provided reparations for slavery.
China is accused of expansionist territorial claims. But the 19th-century Monroe Doctrine – a bedrock of American foreign policy – proclaimed America’s sphere of influence and warned other states off.
Hawaii was unlawfully invaded and the Kingdom of Hawaii illegally overthrown in 1893.
This isn’t an argument for relativism but a reminder that this is what emerging big powers do. They test the limits of their power, claim what they can and legitimise it by force.
Genocide, invasion, and colonisation established Western imperial hegemony.
None of this is lost on China, even — or especially — as the Communist Party commits its own acts of aggression.
Has China made the world more dangerous?
China’s rise has been largely peaceful. Yes, there have been skirmishes between India and China, flashpoints in the South China Sea and disputed islands between Japan and China.
But the world has til now avoided the Thucydides trap – the idea stemming from the Peloponnesian Wars of Ancient Greece – that a rising power set against a waning power will inevitably lead to conflict.
Rising China and the US are competitors yes, but not warring enemies – not yet, at least.
What does Xi bring to the mix?
Is Xi Jinping a wild card?
He believes he is a man of destiny.
He is certainly a more forceful leader. China scholar Elizabeth Economy in her book, The World According to China, says succinctly: “Xi’s ambition, as his words and deeds over the past decade suggest, is to reorder the world order.”
Xi warns of “reunifying” Taiwan by force if necessary.
But every Chinese leader since Mao Zedong has said the same thing.
Xi held that position when Australia signed a free-trade deal with China. He was the same authoritarian Xi, cracking down hard on dissent in 2014 when then prime minister Tony Abbott invited the Communist leader to address a joint sitting of parliament.
And brutal Chinese leaders have been feted before.
Mao Zedong was waging a cultural revolution when US president Nixon and then Australian opposition leader soon to be prime minister, Gough Whitlam, travelled separately to Beijing seeking rapprochement with China.
Deng Xiaoping ordered his army to massacre its own people in Tiananmen Square, and he was lauded as the champion of China’s economic reforms.
China was rewarded with the hand back of Hong Kong and later the Olympic Games.
Australia has picked a side
Let’s not pretend the world has never been in doubt about what and who China is. We have just preferred to look away when it suited us.
Now it suits us to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on nuclear submarines and double down on our historic alliances with the UK and the US.
We have picked our side.
Keating is right to raise questions. History will reveal his wisdom or not.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong says Keating’s views belong to another age. She says we can’t “wish away” China’s military build-up.
“We don’t face a region that we hope we had. We face the region of today,” she says.
Isn’t that what Keating is saying too?