Chinese Love Triangle

Washington needs to embrace a new diplomatic geometry.

Wen Jiabao. Click image to expand.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao

Many of China’s leaders have been in Washington this week for talks with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson on hard issues such as currencies, protectionism, and piracy. Their presence in the capital will focus American minds on the critical bilateral relationship with China.

However, Washington needs to understand that, in the future, its Asian relations will increasingly be dominated by trilateral configurations, as old allies and friends such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia move to accommodate the rising influence of the Middle Kingdom.

Perhaps the best example of this trend is the emerging strategic triangle formed by the United States, China, and Australia. The Australia-U.S. side of this triangle is, of course, sturdy. Both countries are English-speaking democracies, and their alliance has survived for half a century. For Australia, the United States is a powerful ally; for the United States, Australia is a reliable ally. In fact, Australia is Washington’s most reliable ally: the only country to fight beside the United States in every major conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries—including the current folly in Iraq.

In recent decades, Australia has enjoyed a congenial situation where its biggest trading partner, Japan, is itself an ally of Australia’s great strategic ally, the United States. However, this is likely to change due to the astonishing clip at which China is growing and the complementarity between the Chinese and Australian economies. (Essentially, China buys up Australia’s natural resources as fast as they can be dug out of the ground and sends the container ships back full of cheap clothing and other manufactured goods.) Before too long, China will likely overtake Japan on Australia’s trading league table, at which point Canberra’s largest trading partner will be a great power rival of its principal ally.

It’s not only the numbers that are changing, either. China’s rising diplomatic skill and military capacity would, if plotted on a chart, produce a growth curve just as impressive as its economic performance. Beijing’s influence is growing in the oil-rich regions of Latin America and the Middle East, at the United Nations in New York and—most important for Australia—in Northeast and Southeast Asia. In order to pursue its interests in Asia and the Pacific, Australia needs close ties with the paramount regional power. A 2006 visit to Australia by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao produced an agreement by Australia to sell uranium to Beijing—a favor Canberra has not yet extended to its fellow democracy India. The Australian government is noticeably gentle in its human rights representations to China—a country that tops even the United States when it comes to executing people, for instance.

As the Australia-China side of the strategic triangle thickens, Australian public opinion is bifurcating. Polling undertaken last year by the Lowy Institute for International Policy indicated that while 70 percent of Australians believe the alliance with the United States is important for their security, a similar number also thought that Australia takes too much notice of American views in its foreign policy. Respondents felt equally warmly toward China as they did toward the United States.

There are three things the United States should do in response to the emergence of the new Asia-Pacific geometry. First, it should pay attention. It is understandable that Washington has been preoccupied since 9/11 with the fight against terrorists, but China’s rise may turn out to be of greater historical importance than al-Qaida’s arrival.

It could start by deploying its regional diplomatic resources more adroitly. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s March 2006 visit to Australia and Indonesia was successful but came only after several cancellations. A new U.S. ambassador to Australia has been appointed, but only after his residence in Canberra was allowed to stand vacant for 18 months—a worrying symptom of Washington’s Asian attention deficit disorder.

Second, Washington should persist in its recent shift toward a more prudent grand strategy.In his first term, President Bush pursued a muscular strategy to impose America’s will on the world. He seemed to agree with the Duke of Marlborough’s maxim that in every alliance one party wears the boots and spurs while the other wears the saddle.

However, with the failure to quickly establish a functioning state in Iraq or to find weapons of mass destruction, diplomacy has staged a comeback. In the past three years, Washington has worked with allies and partners on issues involving Libya, Syria, North Korea, and Iran. The pursuit of this more moderate course has disappointed many of the president’s boosters, but it has made life much simpler for Australia and other U.S. allies.

Finally, Washington should be realistic about China’s rise. In other words, the third side of the triangle, the U.S.-China side, needs to be reinforced—which brings us back to this week’s talks in Washington. The administration should ignore the siren songs of economic nationalists in Congress and geopolitical ultraconservatives in Washington think tanks who call for the containment of China. There are worrying aspects of China’s rise, including its rapid military buildup, but it is too late to contain her, and anyway, no Asian states except perhaps Japan are prepared to help.

The United States is very good at the linear application of power. In the new Asia, however, it will have to bone up on its trigonometry.