The Weekend Australian

By Rowan Callick

A G'Day USA conference focused on China's -- and Australia's -- pivotal role in world affairs BARACK Obama's State of the Union address this week marked a crucial watershed in global affairs. It confirmed that Asia has now become the US's leading focus, enhancing Australia's own role in the region and with its main ally. Nine years after 9/11, the US has shifted its top international priority from terrorism -- which failed to gain a single mention -- to what Obama calls "our generation's Sputnik moment". Half a century ago, he said, the US woke up, after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite into orbit, to the need to win the space race and the associated race for innovation and research. The new challenge, he said, is "to win the future". The US President said in the address: "Nations like China and India realised that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. Just recently, China became the home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer. "But this shouldn't discourage us. It should challenge us. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business." Obama mentioned China four times in the speech, India three times, and South Korea five times. Iraq and Afghanistan featured, but as places from which the US was withdrawing rather than as part of the way to "win the future".

This shift in priorities towards Asia was reflected in a conference that was part of this year's G'Day USA program, which concludes today after 40 events in 10 American cities, promoting Australian relations with the US. China has become in the US, as in Australia, a proxy for Asia as a whole, and in the lead-up to the State of the Union address the American visit of China's President Hu Jintao dominated the mass media. Video advertisements promoting China have been running on six giant screens in New York's Times Square, 300 times a day. Henry Kissinger has recently written that it is in neither the US's nor China's interest to stage a second cold war. But Geoff Garrett, chief executive of Sydney University's US Studies Centre, said that merely using such language changes the relationship. James Fallows, the national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and chair in US Media at the centre, told the G'Day USA conference that the important themes of Hu's visit from the US side were that America had not fallen apart as a Pacific power, and that "the Chinese have over-reached in the last year, increasing their neighbours' suspicions of Chinese intentions and their solidarity with the USA". Obama pointed out at a press conference with Hu -- they have met eight times in under two years -- that China comprises just a third of the US economy, with four times the population. Fallows said: "The Chinese government has realised it has misplayed its hand. The other major US theme is that it welcomes China's rise rather than fears it. There has been a rapid increase in China's military strength, but the absolute gap between the West and China is profound."

The US ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich, told the conference: "The next phase is re-evaluating our whole global force posture, about which it's time to be more thoughtful, and to work with our allies like Australia to see how we get a multiplier effect." Garrett noted that when Obama visited India and Indonesia in recent months, he talked of common values, about the market and about democracy. In China's case, the focus was on acknowledging difference, though Obama said the US did share with it a stress on family and education and hard work. Australia's ambassador to the US, Kim Beazley, said that "we tend to be interest driven people in foreign policy concerns rather than focused on values. Clearly it is vitally important for the US that it looks at values. Americans are not hypocrites. They value their role on human rights."

Fallows said that the broad sweep of US policy towards China and Asia had remained remarkably consistent over 30 years, though "the war on terror was the top priority for George W. Bush, while now under Obama, Asia has become the first tier". Although the US and Obama had been portrayed as weak and fading by Chinese media and analysts, Fallows said that "Obama has shown himself to be remarkably resilient, and seemed a confident leader in dealing with Hu". International anxiety has become a Hu concern, he said, with calming the suspicions of China's Asian neighbours a focus of his final full year of office. Alan Dupont, the director of the Centre for International Security Studies at Sydney University, said the Western Pacific is where the major interests of China and the US intersect, with the sea lanes more important because of energy as much as trade. China's response is to ramp up its asymmetric capabilities to prevent the US playing a dominant role. "This is starting to bear fruit. It is going to be very difficult for the US to send war groups to the Taiwan Strait or within reasonable distance of the Chinese mainland without opening itself to unacceptable losses." Ultimately, Dupont said, China wants "to push the US into the central Pacific as far as possible." Bleich said that the situation in Asia today is different from the Americas in 1823. "Other countries [in Asia] have more developed economies, and a greater sense of their own sovereignty." Thomas McNaugher, the director of the centre for Asia Pacific Policy at Rand Corporation, said that while Bush was hard on human rights, meaning hard on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Obama quickly signed up to ASEAN's treaty of amity and co-operation, opening the door to meetings from which the US had been excluded before. While great-power rivalry tends to turn violent at some stage, he said, the extent of economic engagement between China and the US "may dull the intensity of such crises". He said: "We can't balance Chinese power alone," so the US needs to call on its friends, especially Australia and Japan. Richard Rigby, director of the China Institute at the Australian National University, said that Australia is in "a more bracing policy-making environment", with "our major economic partner not also our main security partner" for the first time in Australia's history.

The focus of China itself, he said, was on regime survival. And a debate is under way there about whether the US's decline is structural or temporary, and whether to abandon permanently Deng Xiaoping's advice to keep a low profile internationally. "There's a boiling mix of ideas bubbling away" in China, he said.

China expresses concern about avoiding cold war thinking, Rigby said, "but circles within China's own foreign policy community have such thinking. They talk about win-win, but the zero sum game is deeply embedded within the system." Ken Chern, former US consul-general in Perth, where he has just become professorial research fellow at Murdoch University, said: "The US and Australia are tied at the hip by China." They both need China enough, he said, "that there is no real alternative to accommodation". Exchange rate issues are starting to take a back seat with the realisation that over time inflation and other factors will cause China to change. Chern said: "To me the most important issues are intellectual property rights, and actions to restrict those who want to come into the Chinese market." Charles Morrison, president of the East-West Centre in Washington, said that the US has become so focused on China because it represents "the cutting edge of globalisation". "Twenty-five years ago that was Japan. In the past, other countries thought that globalisation was what the US was doing to them. Now it's what China is doing to others."