What does the Asian Century mean for Australia’s security?

As Australia’s 2012 Asian Century White Paper declares, the twenty-first century is the Asian Century where Asia will likely continue its rapid and sustained economic growth. And Asia’s economic rise will bring about a significant change in the region’s security order. In particular, China’s rise will dramatically change the distribution of power in Asia and therefore will challenge the US-led status quo. The question is: what does Asia’s different regional order mean for Australia? We don’t know the answer yet, but one thing is for sure: strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing will pose serious challenges for Australia. As the rivalry escalates, Australia’s security and economy will suffer. If things go bad, Australia could be dragged into a major war between China and America.

For the last four decades, American leadership in Asia has provided regional stability. This stability has enabled Asian countries to achieve dramatic economic growth. Especially China has enjoyed rapid and sustained economic growth, thanks to the US-led unipolar order in Asia. But now the Chinese authorities, in both dovish and hawkish camps, think that China needs a new regional order for further growth. Of course, China still needs stability in Asia, but no one in Beijing believes that American leadership is essential for that stability. It is no surprise that China believes that its leadership can maintain peace and stability in Asia as it had done in the past.

Some argue that Beijing would not compete against Washington because it is too costly and risky. They say that Chinese leaders are smart enough to understand the great cost of strategic rivalry with America. Some people, like Joseph Nye, believe that America will retain its primacy in Asia as it will remain overwhelmingly strong. I believe they are too optimistic. If not, they simply don’t want to accept the reality. China is already a great power and will likely continue to rise robustly. America, on the other hand, will gradually lose its control over the Asian security order.

China, of course, would not want a war with the United States, but it would want to exert more influence when it gets more power. Many in Washington already know this and fear that America may lose its place at the head of the Asian order in the reasonably foreseeable future. The US Pivot to Asia, or rebalancing strategy, has already proved two things: first, America perceives China as a serious threat to its primacy in the Asia-Pacific, and secondly, Washington has a strong intention to compete with Beijing for a regional leadership role. Strategic rivalry between these two great powers is therefore quite real.

And this great power rivalry matters a lot to Australia because America may lose the competition and thus the old US-led Asian order could collapse. Australia, like other Asian countries, has enjoyed peace and stability for more than half of a century under the US-led security order. As America’s ally, Australia has been able to ensure its national security without much effort. America’s strong military presence and active engagement in the Asia-Pacific have made the practical tasks of defending the Australian continent far easier for Canberra. This golden era is, however, now ending as American supremacy in Asia is gradually fading.

The Asian Century, therefore, is an era of Sino-American rivalry. And the rivalry is already very serious. Washington adopted the pivot strategy to deter China from expanding its strategic and economic influence in Asia and is striving to push its Asian allies to actively participate in its China containment policy. In April 2014, the United States called for a ‘more active role’ for Japan in Asia and a few months later the hawkish Abe government remilitarized the nation. More recently, America has also urged South Korea to deploy US-made missile defence system on the Korean peninsula.

In response to this anti-Chinese strategy, China has openly condemned Washington and its Asian allies for their ‘aggressive’ actions. In practical ways, Beijing has aggravated the territorial disputes with the US allies in Asia and is boosting its military expenditure to counter its major strategic competitor. It is noteworthy that China’s capacity of ‘sea-denial’ has remarkably been strengthened, and as a result, the longstanding belief that US ‘sea-control’ and power projection in Northeast Asia remain overwhelming is now seriously challenged.

This great power rivalry is already dragging Australia into a dangerous position. In 2014, Australia and Japan signed a historical defence and security pact. This pact is part of Japan’s, more broadly America’s, strategy to gather other Asian powers to oppose China. We don’t know yet whether Abe’s plan will succeed and whether Abbott’s decision was wise. But we know for sure that Australia’s security now depends on whether Washington and Tokyo successfully restrain Beijing. If they fail to deter China from challenging American leadership, Australia’s security will be at risk.

Unfortunately, China is already a major military power and will get stronger as its economic growth continues. The truth is that this giant Asian power is already far too powerful to be contained. And China would certainly continue to respond to America’s provocative actions. The strategic rivalry between China and America – and its followers – will therefore inevitably further escalate.

Australia would be lucky if the strategic competition between Beijing and Washington stays cold as the US-Soviet Cold War rivalry did. But things may go wrong. Uncertainty and miscalculations between China and America could easily trigger a catastrophic war in Asia. I prefer not to think about this worst-case scenario. But if this does happen, Australia, like it or not, will be one of the first tier countries to participate in that war.

Eventually, the Asian Century will continue to feed China’s ambitions for a new security order in Asia under its leadership. And the United States would not stop trying to deter Beijing from challenging its primacy. The Sino-American strategic rivalry is therefore inevitable. And most importantly, Australia is already part of this dangerous power struggle.