April 14th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Howard's Coalition - fewer options left as election looms

EDITORIAL: The high cost of 'symbolic' politics

THE ENVIRONMENT: Bushfire victims take NSW, Vic govts to court

WATER: Details of PM's water plan - disaster for farmers

NSW STATE ELECTION: When will Liberals, Nationals ever learn?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Why young people read less / NSW's Knight with the Mournful Countenance / Journalistic hooliganism / The Easter Rising

INTELLIGENCE CORNER: Losing the war on the home front / Assessing the terrorist threat

SCHOOLS: Labor's standard threat to schools

MEDICAL SCIENCE: New developments in stem-cell science

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Australia caught between Beijing and Washington

SRI LANKA: Bloodbath looms in war-torn Sri Lanka

OPINION: An ABC of the ABC - a listener's guide


Millions squandered (letter)

Regional rail networks (letter)

Labor's Mugabe dilemma (letter)

David Hicks (letter)

Russia's Putin should not be demonised (letter)

CINEMA: Story to scare the daylights out of you - Lives of Others

BOOKS: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

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Australia caught between Beijing and Washington

by Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, April 14, 2007
China, now the world's fourth largest economy, is quite clearly ambitious to replace the US as the dominant power in the region, writes Sharif Shuja.

China's economic success, its billion dollar trade surpluses and its massive market penetration are enormously impressive. The year 2006 saw China acquire the largest foreign exchange reserves in the world, worth a mind-boggling $1 trillion.

It also saw China firmly establishing itself as the world's fourth-largest economy, an achievement based on two decades of solid economic growth.

According to a recent report by Citigroup, China could be the world's largest economy in the next 25 years.

And yet countries from Japan to the US have expressed unease at Beijing's foreign policy as well as its military modernisation programme, calling attention to what they allege is the opaque nature of this process.

Human rights groups have also attacked China's willingness to deal with regimes widely condemned as corrupt and oppressive.

African dictatorships

For instance, China is currently Angola's largest export market and also absorbs some 70 per cent of Sudan's exports. Not only that, China has also repeatedly used its clout at the UN in the defence of African dictatorships widely condemned by the West.

Beijing has resisted any moves towards international military intervention in Darfur. It has stopped all attempts at discussion at the UN of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's Operation Murambatsvina last year, in which 700,000 people had their homes or businesses destroyed.

Many countries have criticised Beijing's hardline diplomacy and foreign policy. Some have sought to draw up elaborate strategies to contain China. The view that China is a threat to regional order has resonated strongly in the Western media and policy-making.

The Bush Administration in particular views a rising China as a threat to regional order. The Administration has classified China as a "strategic competitor" and has attempted to restrain China's emergence by developing closer defence ties with Japan.

The US-Japan security accord, signed in Washington on May 1, 2006, focussed on China and stressed the need for joint military preparedness.

Some commentators think China is only trying to push the US out of East Asia and overtake it as the region's dominant economic and military power.

Japan and Singapore apart, Asian nations generally are not so close to the US's foreign policy agenda. Asian leaders grumble that Washington does not seem to understand that economic development - not the fight against international terrorism - is a higher priority for Southeast Asian governments.

China appreciates this, and its initiative to implement a free-trade agreement with ASEAN by 2010 gives hope to Asian leaders that China's rise will be beneficial to those who elect to support a Chinese-led integration of Asia's economies.

Rather than supporting the US war on terror, Southeast Asian nations seem willing to accept China's leadership in order to promote economic integration and development.

I personally believe Washington should engage Asia more actively. A region dominated by the US might not be perfect, but it is likely to be a lot better than the likely alternative - domination by China.

The US Administration revealed on January 18 this year that the Chinese military had conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test against an ageing Chinese weather satellite. The satellite was destroyed on January 11 by a medium-range ballistic missile at an altitude of 537 miles above the earth's surface.

Thousands of pieces of the destroyed satellite are in orbit and could damage or destroy some of the US and foreign satellites.

Despite Washington's private consultations over the matter with Beijing before the announcement, Beijing waited five days after the announcement to officially confirm the test, stating that there were no plans to conduct a second test and that the "test was not targeted against any country and does not pose a threat to any country. China opposes weaponisation and an arms race in outer space. Our position has not changed." (Washington Post, January 23, 2007).

The ASAT test raises unsettling questions about Beijing's supposed longstanding opposition to space weapons, not to mention its commitment to arms control. And what will be the ramifications of China's rise as a major power and its military posture and foreign policy towards the United States?

The test has also set back efforts at US-China space cooperation. On February 2, the Washington Times reported that the Bush Administration had suspended plans to develop space ventures with China, including joint exploration of the moon, in reaction to Beijing's January 11 ASAT test.

The suspension is meant to signal US displeasure with the test, as well as Beijing's failure to provide an explanation for its space arms program.

Lacking an official explanation from the Chinese Government, analysts are forced to divine Beijing's motives. China's actions do not appear to be aimed at coercing the United States to negotiate a space weapons treaty.

If this were the case, the foreign ministry in all likelihood would have issued a statement immediately following the test's revelation.

If the test were not to coerce the United States to negotiate a space weapons treaty, it is possible that it was a response to US government and military statements advocating the development of space weapons. For some time now, Chinese authors have identified the United States as intent on developing space weapons.

Chinese strategists

It is possible Chinese strategists suspect the US already possesses space weapons or will eventually develop them regardless of Chinese actions, and that China must possess space weapons to conduct its own counter-space missions or to deter the US from using space weapons.

Therefore, the test should be viewed in a more military rather than a diplomatic context. Also the test should be viewed in the context of China's large-scale build-up of both strategic and conventional forces, not just space weapons.

China has increased its military budget by one-third over the last two years, and its official military budget will grow by almost 15 per cent this year. Some analysts fear a stronger Chinese military could destabilise Asia.

China is raising the ire of the US in its pursuit of relationships with pariah states. To meet its energy needs, Beijing is forming cosy relationships with states such as Sudan and Iran, that Washington seeks to marginalise.

In fact, China's new diplomacy aims to undermine US goals of isolating or punishing rogue states.

Oil is a key to China's interest in Sudan. At present, Sudan is China's largest overseas production base, and more than half of its oil exports go to China, accounting for 5 per cent of China's total oil imports.

Iran is now China's biggest foreign-oil supplier, and its relations with China in the political, economic and military arenas have intensified.

Since Sudan and Iran together supply China with 20 per cent of its oil imports, US attempts to contain these regimes bring it into direct confrontation with China's energy-security policies.

Washington has warned Beijing that their two countries will be on a collision course if China continues to pursue energy deals in places like Iran and Sudan. US deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, has said that Beijing's ties with "troublesome" states would have repercussions elsewhere, and the Chinese would have to pay the "price".

The potential friction does not end there. China has also made overtures towards Latin American oil-producing countries, an area which is traditionally within the US "sphere of influence" and also a major oil supplier to the US.

In the search for fuel and minerals for its booming economy, China is disregarding US objections by courting these countries, thus creating further tension.

It has been suggested that Australia can help its own case by taking active steps toward influencing the attitude of the US toward China. The ability of Australia to do so is questionable; but some experts, including Professor William Tow of the Australian National University, suggest that Canberra's warm diplomacy towards China and John Howard's even-handedness are already sending a message to the US that Australia sees a leading role for China in the region.

More particularly with regard to the issue of energy, Australia, as a member of the Asia-Pacific Climate Partnership, can help shape the body so that it is conducive to meaningful discussion between China and the US on the topic of energy.

Ironically, what gives Australia some potential for influence is the closer ties it has been forging with Beijing via its strategy of keeping business and politics - especially the issue of China's human rights record - separate.

It is this same separation between business and politics that the US is calling unacceptable in relation to Beijing's conduct with these pariah states.

- Sharif Shuja is an international relations specialist in the School of Social Sciences at Victoria University.

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