The Sydney Morning Herald

A distinguished panel will discuss Australian assumptions about a new world order, writes Jason Blake.

Of all the countries in the world, Australia leads the pack when it comes to holding a popular belief that China is the pre-eminent economy, the American author and journalist James Fallows says.

"I challenge that prevailing view," Fallows says. "I believe Australia has developed an understandable, but significant, overestimation of China’s rise. It’s understandable because Australia is so much smaller than the United States and so much more closely involved in Chinese trade, but it’s inaccurate, nevertheless."

Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic who has studied and lived in China and written two books on the country’s commercial and cultural evolution, says Australia’s close economic ties to China, and a degree of blindness to the US’s cultural power (a result of our familiarity with it), have warped our national perspective and strategic outlook.

"In China itself, people are far more aware of their country’s limitations and problems," he says.

"There’s an anecdote that Susan Shirk [the author of China: Fragile Superpower] told me. When she travels in America, people say, ‘What do you mean, "fragile"?’ When she travels in China, they say, ‘What do you mean, "superpower"?’

"You have to remember that even now, there are almost as many peasants in China as there are people in the United States. And while Chinese universities are expanding in number, they aren’t making the same impact in international rankings."

For Fallows, the great and almost unassailable advantage that the US has lies in its "soft" power, the influence developed and exported for a century in its films, advertising and consumer aspirations."

"China would have to seriously recalibrate everything that it is to compete in that arena,’’ he says.

"Just look at the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony: so impressive, but in many ways very insecure."

In the "China Hearts America" session, Fallows will be talking alongside several notable China thinkers: a professor of political science at the University of Sydney, Geoffrey Garrett; Eric Knight, who has worked as an economics consultant to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United Nations and the World Bank; and Jianying Zha, the author of two highly influential books on China written in English, China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids and Bestsellers are Transforming a Culture and Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China.

The Opera House’s head of public programs, Ann Mossop, says the Festival of Dangerous Ideas is keen to challenge the orthodoxies in Australian thinking about the China-US relationship.

"We don’t want a rerun of the conversations we always hear because there seems to be a very consistent line of thinking on the subject," Mossop says. "It used to be that China makes it, America spends it, and everyone was happy in a symbiotic relationship.

"But now there’s the feeling that there is only room for one superpower and we have serious analysts positing the idea that there will be war in the South China Sea or over the Spratly Islands. Everything, we’re told, points to some kind of showdown.

"But what if there are other ways it could play out? What if China and America became a closely bonded economic entity, for example? What would that mean for Australia? The idea we’re used to is that you side with one or the other, but what if we were totally irrelevant?"

Mossop believes Fallows’s knowledge of China, coupled with his long immersion in American politics, gives him a rare stereoscopic view of the situation.

"James has made it a mission to understand China and experience it," Mossop says. "I can’t think of anyone better to interpret the situation for us."

The China Hearts America event might seem like a foreign-policy wonks’ zone, but Mossop says it is geared to a general audience. "I think it’s for people who like to follow the workings of the world," he says. "This will be a chance to get the broader story about what people in China think."