A chance for Canberra to calm Sino-US waters

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 August, 2007, 12:00am


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From the perspective of a middle-ranking power like Australia, some aspects of the Sino-US relationship are troubling: perhaps none more so than the prospect of a nuclear arms race between those two countries. Australia might be able to mitigate this risk: it has managed to remain rock-solid friends with the United States while hotly pursuing a positive relationship with Beijing.

A report released late last year by the Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defence Council noted that an 'incipient nuclear arms race is emerging between the United States and China. The two nations have been aiming their nuclear weapons at each other for decades, but now - with the absence of a definitive enemy such as the Soviet Union - the United States has elevated China to fill the void to help justify modernising its armed forces in general, and its nuclear forces in particular.

'China, too, uses the United States as a rationale for modernising its forces, and the two nations are becoming increasingly locked into a pattern of action and reaction reminiscent of the cold war.'

The Bush administration's decision to supply non-military nuclear technologies to India will do nothing to change Beijing's view that it ought to build a nuclear weapons capacity. The People's Daily noted last week that the deal represents an American attempt to seek greater hegemony in the Asian region.

So where does a country like Australia, with only 20 million people and no nuclear weapons, fit into this picture of rising instability? According to a report released last week by Hugh White, of Sydney's Lowy Institute think-tank, Australia ought to take the lead in pushing Beijing and Washington to reach a bilateral nuclear arms agreement.

Professor White argued that doomsday scenarios like a nuclear conflict over Taiwan, between the two nations, might seem far-fetched. Yet peace and stability in the Asian region - which is essential to Australia's interests - will be harder to achieve while nuclear weaponry is on the table, he said.

According to Professor White, the more 'the US is seen to be striving to neutralise Beijing's deterrent and achieve nuclear primacy over China, the more likely that China will conclude that America's ultimate intentions towards it are hostile. The more that Americans see China striving to preserve the capacity to overcome US nuclear defences, the more likely they are to see China as threatening, and the more reluctant they will be to seek accommodations with its rising power.'

It is hard to argue with the picture Professor White paints of Sino-US relations. And while this testy relationship does not pose an immediate danger to the Asian region, it is not hard to imagine that it could escalate quickly, given the lack of trust between Beijing and Washington. That's why Australia could take the lead on forging an arms deal.

Why Australia? Well, who else is going to do it? Japan is out of the question for obvious reasons; the mainland sees India as a rival; and South Korea also has problematic ties with Beijing.

Getting Beijing and Washington to sign on the dotted line and stick to their word will be hard work, warns Professor White. Australia will need to take its diplomatic relationship with Beijing beyond the current focus on trade. And the US will need to be persuaded that it can maintain what Professor White terms its 'deep conviction' about its destiny to lead the world - while at the same time recognising the mainland's 'growing power and the Chinese sense of destiny'.

The alternative to Australia taking a lead now and promoting a nuclear arms limitation deal between Beijing and Washington is the real risk of increasing instability in the Asian region. So let's hope Professor White's idea falls on fertile soil among Australia's political leaders.

Greg Barns is a political commentator in Australia and a former Australian government adviser

Australia could take the lead in forging a nuclear armaments deal between Beijing and Washington