Publication: The Australian Financial Review
Author: Andrew Robb

The imminent federal election must see our major political parties explain how they would position Australia to influence the emerging Cold War – fought in the domain of technology - between the US and China.

I have visited Washington on business for 36 of the last 39 years. I have also had as many trips to China over that period.

I’ve witnessed the United States, and the West more broadly, strongly encourage and support the reemergence of a prosperous, strong and stable China, a China that would play its part in maintaining the global order.

Basically, that is what has transpired with China to the benefit of hundreds of millions; but this remarkable success has also led to the emergence of other unexpected “Chinese characteristics” of concern which have fueled the current backlash, such as, the rights of foreign firms, respecting intellectual property, the slow-down in policy reform, excessive State control in allocating capital, and the sovereign risk associated with the blending of commercial and political actions.

This saw the tide turn six or seven years ago as I witnessed Washington, on both sides of the political aisle, progressively being consumed by an intent to ‘contain’ China.

The success of the Sino-American co-operation in ultimately “containing” the USSR during the Cold War of the last century has ironically influenced Washington.

The growing breakdown in Sino-American relations stemming from this ‘containment’ objective means this will be the key problem of our time.

Unfortunately, many are seeing this as a short-term problem, sitting back hoping and assuming that some trade fix between President Trump and President Xi will bring the two countries to their senses.

Others assume that the US economic interdependence with China will ultimately be the stabilizing force, or that it would go away when Trump’s era was over.

Yet, the recent speech by Vice President, Mike Pence, effectively reveals the announcement of a new Cold War, or tech war, targeted at ‘containing’ China’s future technological advancement and economic growth. The China/US dilemma will not just “go away”.

Yet little or any recognition appears to be given to the historic context of the changes across the Indo Pacific.

China and India are not emerging great powers, they are both re-emerging to share the political and economic centre of gravity in the world – a position they occupied for 18 of the last 20 centuries – a position of world power they will share with the US this century.

Unfortunately, the United States appears yet to accept this inevitability; going “head to head” on ‘containment’ is a futile and counterproductive approach in my view.

Transitioning to power sharing between the US and China, and ultimately India, constitutes the biggest opportunity, and potentially the biggest threat to Australia and others.

Done effectively, such a transition to an open and cooperative balance of power in our region will see the China development experience repeated in India, and across the ASEAN countries in the decades ahead. And we will all be the beneficiaries.

Done poorly, in the absence, among these powers, of strong leadership and common sense, the antagonism between China and the US could foster unpredictable hostilities for decades.

None of this means that the West need “tug the forelock” to China, nor for that matter to the perceived priorities of the United States.

Both China and the US have an equal responsibility to create a stable and prosperous outcome.

As former PM John Howard so sagely observed maintaining good relations with China involves: “standing up for your values, recognizing the differences between Australia and China, concentrating on common interest, recognizing the good China is achieving without becoming mesmerized, and ensuring face to face meetings at high levels”.

This is hugely powerful list which, if followed, facilitates a stable relationship built on mutual respect, not one prone to invective and misrepresentation.

Given the long-standing United States alliances, and the trading power of China, no country wants to be pressured to choose between a currently unpredictable America and overbearing China.

Nor should any country be put in such a position. Again, as Prime Minister Howard often observed: “you don’t need to lose a friend, to make a friend”.

And, if you are reading this thinking, I am a “China stooge” you are doing nothing but highlighting the problem I am seeking to identify.

Despite our population size compared to the major powers, as a non-threatening first world country Australia has often played a crucial facilitating role in major regional and world forums. This is our diplomatic strength.

Australia should be expected to play such a role again, and play it now.

It is not our role to admonish or lecture; that approach has failed us with China.

It is our role to bring parties together, while seeking to influence by example; to practice mutual respect, while firmly and respectively sticking to our principles.

Given the long term and highly problematical dynamics at play between our major regional powers, Australia needs to take a long-term view on how to best influence progress on common interests.

In this regard, as Chairman of Asialink, I am constantly being approached by business people asking what Australia’s position is.

Our federal election in May must see both our major political parties clearly articulate how each would seek to position Australia to facilitate a peaceful transition to power sharing in our region over the coming decades.