Should we defend the Great Wall or the Grand Canyon?
Recently a colleague mockingly asked me why I bothered writing. I replied: because the quality of debate is appallingly bad.
Exactly, she said. Thus with a sense of light-hearted despair at the recent banter in the media, I weigh into Australia’s strategic policy apropos the on-rushing war with China.
It appears that the conservative minds that discuss strategic policy are aligning. China is growing, the world is changing, and power is being redistributed. According to those who subscribe to the various brands of “Realist” international relations theory, this situation necessarily entails armed conflict between states.
This means Australia need “choose” between persisting with the US or going with the golden goose and “backing” China.
As any decent analyst knows, conventional warfare constitutes the mechanics of international relations. History has made this abundantly clear. Just as the US wrested global hegemony from the British Empire in bitter fighting, the US subsequently affirmed that privilege by bombing a once threatening Soviet colossus back to the Stone Age.
This is how the powerful men who act as nation states do business: tough statements followed by even tougher smack downs.
Well, fortunately this is not the case; the “reality” of international relations is somewhat more mysterious. However, the above scenario reveals that a love of sensationalising certain issues whilst completely disregarding others remains an enduring aspect of “strategic analysis”.
I can only assume employing such methods is popular as it allows analysts to develop a “strategic picture” reflecting one’s own interests or preferences.
I would never dismiss the possibility of a conflict between China and the US, which would indeed probably wreak havoc, and be extremely bad for us all. However, I feel there are reasons to remain ambiguous about the imminence of such a conflict.
In no particular order of significance other than their emergence in my imagination, let us ponder these questions.
How enduring will “China’s Rise” be? Academic journals of the ‘80s and ‘90s were full of predictions about the implications of Japan’s rise, which as Japan faltered seamlessly became the rise of the Tiger economies, until of course the Asian financial crisis broke.
At that point numerous articles appeared which explained that the crisis had to occur because of the obvious problems of crony capitalism, democracy deficits, and the rest.
Predictions can often appear inevitable until they are not fulfilled. Likewise our perceptions of the world are generally skewed by whatever theory or argument is in vogue.
Is China the aggressive, robust, monolith we imagine? Although depictions of China emphasise its dynamic economy and large population, Chinese agency is also beset by a laundry list of challenges.
A brief sample of antagonisms inherent to rapid industrialisation includes: unequal wealth distribution, environmental degradation, demographic challenges, wary neighbours, reliance on international trade, and all the rest.
These points do not lessen the likelihood of conflict; however they challenge perceptions of China as an irresistible usurper to US hegemony, poised to impose its will on the world.
Rather than speculate about the possible intentions and capabilities of China, Australian policy should focus on imagining the type of regional dynamic we might wish to foster and consider what strategies could pragmatically be pursued to such an end.
Persisting with the daydream that a colossal showdown with China is a foregone conclusion is currently the biggest threat to Australia’s security. Such ideas drove the incoherent 2009 Defence White Paper and much of the poorly considered, extravagant spending it proposed.
Buying lots of expensive military equipment is good for the defence sector and its supplicants; it is not necessarily good for Australian citizens or our regional relationships. Such planning fails to engage with the multitude of “real world” challenges.
These range from banal, yet pertinent issues such as finding recruits for the Defence Force in a labour market overheated by Chinese demand for resources, or considering how an aging and increasingly obese population might limit Defence capabilities.
More pertinently, contemporary planning seemingly fails to engage with ideas about the limits to military power or alternative means for pursuing national interests. However, such mundane issues scarcely warrant the attention of those who only have time for grand strategy, and even grander wars.
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