Wherever you look in our near region, the shadow of the elephant walking the room is everywhere.

How about that elephant behind you?

It may not always be voiced, but the US-China relationship and its future stability hang heavy across most discussions, whether at multilateral forums like ASEAN, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum or within regional bilateral talks.

Every commentator of note has given voice to this challenge, some good, some simply nonsensical. I find myself on unfamiliar ground agreeing with Defence Minister Smith when he called on the two great powers to match their military dialogue with their economic engagement.

His is a voice of reason calling for engagement, and the Minister is on firm ground as his words match his actions.

Australia is one of only two countries to conduct joint live fire naval manoeuvres with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Further HMAS Ballarat recently returned from a very successful ship visit to Shanghai, following a similar visit to Australia of the PLAN training ship Zhenghe and the frigate Mianyang in 2010.

I find myself on very familiar ground however disagreeing with Dr Hugh White. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some still argue that the US has just woken up to the China reality, evidenced they contend by the US President’s proclaimed Asia pivot as part of his Canberra Declaration.

Paul Keating whilst launching Hugh White’s book The China Choice boasted that only he saw the China rise in the early nineties and then questioned “why it took the US until 2011 to make the so-called ‘‘pivot’’ back to Asia; to acknowledge the centrality of Asia in the new strategic settings is a matter of wonderment.” This is both historical revisionism and hubris.

Likewise Dr White’s gratuitous advice to the US that they have limited choices when dealing with China is simplistic. This is a dynamic region and simplistic choices for the US to either remain, leave or change do the region no justice. Nor does a one sided argument focusing solely on US responsibilities. Julie Bishop was right to distance the Coalition from this view and I agree.

There’s no doubt the region is changing. The GDP output of Asia exceeded that of Europe only within the last 24 months. The new world has gone past the old. The Asia we knew, shaped in some part by western influence is changing, and changing rapidly. Asia’s economies are all hedging their bets, all modernizing their militaries and engaging more earnestly. Growth precipitates and necessitates resource demands, and such demand creates tensions. There is nothing new about this, though the pace is certainly quickening.

The US, rather than respond to one of Dr White’s choices, is instead quite rightly playing a long game. As should Australia as this region is our home. We not only have a stake in it, our very futures are enmeshed.

Yes, our neighbours hedge through military modernization and trade, so must we and so must the US. Recent ASPI publications calling for Australia to limit our ADF are unhelpful. The emphasis must be placed on engagement amidst the change and it is here that the US has been playing a much longer game than Dr White and his acolytes give them credit.

The level of US engagement with China has been significant and ongoing. President Obama has met with President Hu Jintao at least seven times, run at least three major US-China dialogues and in the words of senior US embassy officials, at least half the Cabinet visits China every year.

The number of high level US Defense visits and exchanges is ever increasing and the recent meeting with President-in-waiting Xi Jinping and President Obama followed by the Vice President’s extensive engagement is testimony to that.

It would be great if the US became the third nation to do joint live fire naval exercises with the PLAN and for the US 7th Fleet to sail into Shanghai on a goodwill visit rather than to just Hong Kong, followed or preceded by the PLAN Carrier ‘Varyag’ to Honolulu.

This deeper level of military engagement to match the economic engagement would be enormously welcome. Not just because of the optics, but importantly it would lead to the development of naval protocols for incidents at sea, something the US and the USSR always maintained, yet don’t exist between the US and China. It would lead to further discussions towards agreed ‘freedom of navigation’ in the South China Sea, rather than China’s insistence on merely ‘freedom of passage’.

Importantly there is something unique about relationships that develop when you’re both live-firing and have to rely on each other’s professionalism. This year has been a watershed for such engagement.

For the first time Russia was included in RIMPAC, the world’s largest live fire naval manoeuvres out of Hawaii and Indonesia sent their advanced Russian Sukhoi SU-30 fighters to Australia for Exercise Pitch Black.

It’s easier to trust economically than militarily, but the bonds of trust militarily are always much stronger than economically. The future key to regional co-operation and stability does not lie in simplistic choices, but in deeper sustained engagement that gives flesh to the Chinese term guanxi.

Relationships that are both inter-personal, morally obliging and deeply attaching. The US gets this.

Comments on this post close at 8pm AEST.

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    • Gregg says:

      07:29am | 05/09/12

      Hugh White and anyone for that matter can claim fame for meaningless utterings or what they even want to put into books whilst the key quote in this article is:
      ” There’s no doubt the region is changing. ” .......no kidding!
      The whole planet is in constant flux with populations growth, developments and the occasional catastrophe.

      Even between Presidents, what really is a long game? , one of them at least lucky to be around for maybe eight years or if not so lucky, just four and Obama does deserve some credit for creating and keeping dialogue open with China even if there are some terse differences of opinion expressed by beaurocrats and exchanges with Putin may not be of the same standard.

      What will determine just where countries head and influence on Australia in the longer term will be shortages of oil, other resources, food and the lesser shortage of military might.

      Perhaps there is even longer term scope for large swathes of Australia to become one of Chinas food farms, a leasing out in return for development of water management offering all sorts of opportunities that Australians alone cannot hope to fulfill.

    • Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia says:

      10:20am | 05/09/12

      As a small nation people-wise we must learn from history in our relationship with USA. We foolishly followed USA into Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

      My view is that we should ask USA to set up a super large military base on our Christmas Islands which are strategically located to look after the Middle East, Indian subcontinent and southern parts of China.
      This will ensure that USA will protect Australia when Asia descends into total chaos due to a critical global food crisis.

      On the other hand we should make it very clear to USA we shall not follow them in confronting China in the South China Sea where USA seems to be fishing in troubled waters.

      From googling we find that the Diaoyu Islands are next to China and Taiwan and were stolen from China about 100 years ago when Japan also took control of Taiwan. The USA foolishly after WW2 “gave” them to the Japanese when China was in chaos..just as well they also did not “return” Taiwan to Japan after WW2.

    • Siege of Perth says:

      11:46am | 05/09/12

      @Dr B S Goh
      What kind of ridiculous idea is that? “Hey America come build a military base to protect us, oh but just letting you know we wont do anything for you in return”. We go into Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistain and most conflicts with America to make sure we hold up our end of the Alliance so when we are in trouble from a nation of serious size, they will come help us. Its called diplomacy

    • Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia says:

      01:18pm | 05/09/12

      @ Siege of Perth. USA has been and is one of the best super powers in human history.

      Sadly I think it has lost its way in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and it lost lost trillions on these mis-adventures. Vietnam War was based on the wrong assumption that Vietnam was a puppet of China and that could not be further from the truth.

      One reason why US made such mistakes in its foreign affairs is because US is a very insular country. Their newspapers have hardly any news on the outside world.

      We can be a better ally of USA if we critically challenge USA adventures in foreign countries. I purposely wrote the little bit on the Diaoyu Islands which are almost next to China, see google map, to illustrate the complexities of foreign conflicts which are largely beyond the US public understanding.

      The recent activities by China and Japan on the Diaoyu Islands could lead to a big conflict between Japan and China with US drawn into it. If USA is fair minded on this specific issue it should tell Japan sorry we made a mistake by giving you the Diaoyu Islands in 1971 at the time when USA considered China the No 1 enemy .

      We in Australia do not know anything about the Diaoyu Islands and so why get sucked into a conflict with Japan and USA on one side against China, see notes on Diaoyu Islands at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senkaku_Islands. Please see this link as it will help you understand why I say we should not follow USA blindly in its foreign adventures in the South China Sea.

    • Gregg says:

      07:34am | 05/09/12

      As for the caption request
      ” Do you reckon we could give that Putin fella some smiles tips! “

      Or could it just be
      ” Well, then we’re agreed on how to carve up that big hunk of land down in the southern pacific ”

    • sunny says:

      04:52pm | 05/09/12

      “My Mahjong’s a bit rusty, but I hate to turn down a bet, so you’re on!”

    • Scotchfinger says:

      05:15pm | 05/09/12

      the Chinese president is claiming, ‘yes Mr Obama, I can give you a new set of lungs, kidneys or whatever, fresh from a political dissident. Any age group you want!’
      Barack is saying, ‘thanks, but we’re good, we also have the death penalty. More expensive, unfortunately, because we also have a semi-independent court system.’
      Chinese president: ‘hahahahaaaaa, how quaint!’

    • Mahhrat says:

      07:57am | 05/09/12

      Nothing like counting an Army into the millions to realise just how small and insignificant we are, eh?

    • M says:

      08:55am | 05/09/12

      The funny bit is we reckon we actually matter on the world stage, politically, economically, socially.

    • Levi of Bris says:

      10:51am | 05/09/12

      An army of millions is worth absolutely nothing if you don’t have the logistical means to feed and supply it or the sea and airpower to transport and defend it. I’d like to see China even get 10,000 troops over to Taiwan with 11 US fleet carriers running constant bombing missions (400 missions a day from 1 carrier—-> x 11 carriers….thats a lot of airfields, silos, oil storage, transports, that the yanks can take out in 24 hours). Sure chinese surface to surface missiles would do a great deal of damage to US surface forces but China would have no means to project any meaningful amount of force externally after the first few days.

      The US is so far ahead in terms of technology and military strategy and doctrine it will be militarily dominant long after it loses first place economically. Just look at the British in colonial India and South Africa. They were constantly facing numerical odds of 30:1 and greater. It’s all about technology and doctrine.

    • Mahhrat says:

      11:22am | 05/09/12

      @Levi:  I agree, which kinda proves my point, eh?  We can’t bring that kind of military strength to bear, even given the extreme quality of our troops.

    • simonfromlakemba says:

      11:29am | 05/09/12


      Don’t the Chinese just steal everyone’s designs anyway?

    • Mike says:

      11:30am | 05/09/12

      Spot on Levi, I’m glad someone gets it. China simply lacks the means to project its military any significant distance. It has one single aircraft carrier that is basically a lemon, and the US leaves it in the dust in terms of military capability, and will for some time yet. China has some other critical weaknesses too, eg if a missile were to hit the Three-Gorges Dam (like in a hypothetical conflict with Taiwan) at least half of the country would come to a stand-still.

    • Siege of Perth says:

      11:51am | 05/09/12

      Agree numbers dont mean everything, but they certainly do help. Think it would be in our best interest to try and instil a more milatristic culture. Have people wanting to join the armed forces for the honour and prestige of it. 1st thing though is the ADF and the Federal Goverment need to improve the working conditions and pay of the troops. People should be comparing Google with the ADF as the ultimate workplace not with a office cleaner. Our troops deserve it now, and it will attract more to the forces for the future

    • TheRealDave says:

      02:11pm | 05/09/12

      @Levi - preaching to the converted here. I’ve been saying it ont he Punch for years now that the ‘threat’ from China is in essence grossly magnified by militarily clueless civvies for headlines at the moment. They do not have the sea or airlift capacity to project power in their own region let alone thousands of clicks away. An army of ‘millions’ means squat when you cannot move them anywhere becuase you cannot logistically support them.

      Same goes with that other bogeyman Indonesia, the favourite enemy of bogans everywhere who need to point a finger at someone to justify their racist behaviours.

      Until these populace nations can actually projhect power with the help of large blue water navies and huge air transport fleets we have next to no chance of being in danger over the next 50 years. Even at its height the US took MONTHS to ship over 200 000 men and equipment to Kuwait to take on Iraq in Round 1 - and that was with almsot perfect peacetime sea and air routes with no danger at all. China doesn’t even have the fraction of the logistical means necessary to do that.

      But actual facts like that don’t make sexy screaming ‘OMG The Chinese are coming’ headlines for the muppets.

      Personally, I’d be looking mroe at an alleged ally in that region than either China or Indonesia….with their growing Blue Water navy going into the ocean named after them….

    • RonaldR says:

      08:56am | 05/09/12

      Medvedev warns: violation of national sovereignty may lead to “nuclear war”

      On the eve of his trip to the United States, where he will meet with President Barack Obama and the G8 nations at Camp David, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has delivered an unequivocal message to the Western nations threatening to intervene with regime change operations in Syria, Iran, and elsewhere: such actions can lead to “nuclear war”. The headline on the Russia Today wire on Prime Minister Medvedev’s speech, which was given at the plenary session of the Russia-sponsored International Legal Forum in St. Petersburg today, was: “Infringing national sovereignty could lead to nuclear apocalypse.” The picture with the article showed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sitting right behind Medvedev. Medvedev’s warning comes in the midst of visible Russian concerns about the escalating Western intervention to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, in particular, which they see as an escalation of the illegal Libyan operation of 2011, and aimed directly at the sovereignty of every nation state. The relevant section of the speech, as translated on the official Russian Federation website, reads as follows:

      “I would like to emphasise that we need to act in unison against such modern global challenges as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism, organised transnational crime, drug trafficking, and the threat of natural and man-made disasters. We can achieve this only through the collective efforts of states based on undeviating respect for the supremacy of law.

      “Many say that the international legal system has become obsolete. I have heard this said many times during my political practice. They say that its norms do not always ensure an effective response to new challenges. This is partly true, because everything eventually becomes obsolete, and the legal system is no exception. But the acute need for modernising international law does not mean that we should abandon its founding principles, which I believe is an obvious truth.

      “Particularly dangerous, in my view, are unilateral actions made in violation of the fundamental principles of the Charter of the United Nations, which is the main venue where the international community brings its problems. In fact, this is the only venue we have, even though some may not like it. But it truly is the only venue. And we understand that the UN Charter calls for respecting the supreme power of law and the sovereignty of states.

      “One more thing that I believe is important, considering my experience in politics, is the concept of state sovereignty. It should not be undermined even if for the sake of achieving some immediate political gain, including an election to a particular post. Such attempts threaten global order. There have been many recent examples of the concept of state sovereignty being undermined. Military operations against foreign states bypassing the United Nations, declarations of illegitimacy of certain political regimes on behalf of foreign states rather than the people of the country involved and imposing various collective sanctions, again bypassing international institutions, are some of them. This does not improve the situation in the world while rash military interference in the affairs of another state usually results in radicals coming to power. Such actions, which undermine state sovereignty, can easily lead to full-scale regional wars even—I am not trying to scare anyone here—with the use of nuclear weapons. Everybody should remember this especially when we analyse the concept of state sovereignty.” (emphasis added)

      Medvedev’s warning comes in the wake of the May 3 Moscow conference on Ballistic Missile Defense, in which Chairman of the Russian Joint Chiefs of Staff Nikolai Makarov warned that if NATO and the U.S. go ahead with the deployment currently planned, given the “destabilising nature of the missile defense system ... the decision on the preemptive use of available weapons will be made during the period of an escalating situation.”

      Medvedev’s warning follows the clear message China delivered to Australia this week, on Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s first visit, that China is alarmed by Australia’s participation in Obama’s military escalation in the Asia-Pacific targeting China, which the Chinese characterised as a “cold war relationship”. The seriousness of the communications from Russia and China makes a fool of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who denied the gravity of the situation

    • stephen says:

      10:40am | 05/09/12

      The International Court was always going to struggle because of the cultural norms that are behind every country’s use of language, whether it be via translation or otherwise, and that the subsequent legalese is constantly having to accommodate the fine line between motive and intent.
      (Is there a comparable understanding in warlike Sudan between these two ?)
      The UN has 5 permanent members, and they have been there too long.
      They should be rotated, (specifically to exclude Russia and China) and the newer nations should be sought out and offered places.

      Medvedev looks like a banker, and is there only for that reason.
      The nut is Putin, who got his KGB training at a desk in Belarus, got bored, wanted to be James Bond, got ignored, and instead made a fortune of around 300 billion dollars illegally, and now sits around getting crappy portrait painters to make him up astride a white horse dressed in his pyjamas.
      (Putin’s in the nude.)
      If Romney gets to be President, the clear message will be that China is to back off from the South China Sea, and Russia can mine its own wells and keeps away from Northern Pakistan.
      These two need isolating, and I can think of no further use for the UN that that of this.

    • cedric says:

      11:45am | 05/09/12

      Ronald R
      You’ve plagarised another publication, http://larouchepac.com/node/22721, word for word. It’s not your opinion, nor have you credited the author.

    • John says:

      09:40am | 05/09/12

      The US is going to lose to russian and china forces. Australia can basically just do Switzerland and stay out of war, allowing a US base in australia might lead to a chinese invasion in the long term. After all they know all about our resources.

    • Black Dynamite says:

      10:16am | 05/09/12

      Why invade when you can buy the country?


    • M says:

      11:21am | 05/09/12

      BD has the right of it. Cheaper to buy than wage war these days.

    • Mike says:

      11:34am | 05/09/12

      Won’t happen via military force for a long time, but as BD says through buying the place out, and also through demographics, it will largely be theirs eventually anyway.

    • Deano says:

      11:53am | 05/09/12

      If it gets to a US Vs Russia & China war we are all _ucked anyways!

    • Baloo says:

      12:02pm | 05/09/12

      I wish the US would just go and curb stomp these countries so then you would have to shut up john.

      @Black Dynamite, every time I see you signature I see a smiley face.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      01:12pm | 05/09/12

      clearly no-one here has seen the documentary ‘The Avengers’, in cinemas now. So relax!

    • St. Michael says:

      02:05pm | 05/09/12

      Tony Stark for President.

      Come on, you know it makes sense.  He can appoint Captain America as Secretary for Defence, Bruce Banner as Secretary for Science, Romanov as head of the CIA, and Thor as Secretary of State.

    • Economist says:

      03:48pm | 05/09/12

      Pffft, you Marvel freaks. Justice league all the way!
      Superman= President
      Wonder Woman=VEEP
      Flash=Labor (sic)
      Green Lantern=AG
      Martian Manhunter=Homeland Security
      Black Canary= Justice
      the Atom=Energy
      Elongated Man=Interior
      Red Tornado=Education

    • Scotchfinger says:

      04:51pm | 05/09/12

      actually I was thinking Hulk for Defence Minister. Imagine the savings in not needing an actual defence force!!

    • Bruno says:

      12:49pm | 05/09/12

      I read somewhere that about 10 years before the Vietnam War a report came out of the US that said in the case of instability between Australia and Indonesia the US should back Indonesia. This is one of the reasons why our aliance priorities shifted from Britain to US. Anyone know how true this is?

    • John says:

      01:04pm | 05/09/12

      US military generals will have Obama and Romeny arrested when he orders that. It’s not going to happen Baloo! Keep on dreaming. Just another attack and invasion by the US could lead to a coup in the US where the US military will basically roundup Obama or what ever puppet and his advisers and arrest them for high treason. The guy isn’t even a US born, they could just arrest him for that and deport him back to Kenya.

    • Swamp Thing says:

      04:45pm | 05/09/12

      Let the mushroom clouds bloom where they may, I am ready, I’ll be right.
      All you city folks are pretty much f**ked though fer sure.


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