07/01/2020 No. 157
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Stopping a Nuclear Arms Race between America and China (III)
By Hugh White
Posted December 1, 2007

An Australian initiative


The idea of a deal like this has been raised occasionally as a possibility in the academic literature for some years, [24] and Kim Beazley sketched the case in a speech in Beijing in 2004. [25] But it is far from the political agendas in the US or China at present.  That presents a challenge, and also an opportunity, for Australian diplomacy.  I propose that Australia should take upon itself the task of actively promoting the negotiation of a bilateral nuclear arms control agreement between the US and China.  Our aim should be to get the two sides to commit to negotiating such a deal.  We should not present ourselves as an intermediary or a go-between in the negotiations themselves: Beijing and Washington are quite capable of negotiating such a deal without our help, once they accept the wisdom of doing so.  Our task would simply be to nudge this firmly onto their agenda.  This is perhaps the kind of role that John Howard had in mind when he delivered the inaugural Lowy Institute 'Australia in the World' lecture in 2005, where he spoke of Australia 'having a role in continually identifying, and advocating to each, the shared strategic interests these great powers [China and the US] have in regional peace and prosperity.' [26]


An Australian initiative would need to be preceded by careful thought concerning the implications for US allies in the Western Pacific.  It might be argued that the kind of agreement being proposed here would undermine America's extended deterrent nuclear umbrella over allies like Japan and Australia.  By leaving the US vulnerable to Chinese nuclear retaliation, it could undermine US capacity to deter Chinese nuclear attacks on American regional allies, in much the same way that West Europeans during the Cold War feared that US-Soviet agreements would have weakened their protection from the US nuclear umbrella. [27] This is an important question, posing complex choices for American allies.  Would our security in Asia be better served by preserving strong extended deterrence, at the risk of deteriorating US-China relations, or by supporting steps to improve those relations, at the cost of weakening our deterrent shield?  This question is critical for Australia.  It can be tempting to think that cooler US-China relations strengthen the protection we derive from our US alliance.  But a US-China conflict would be a disaster for Australia, so seeking security in Sino-American tensions is not a good strategy for us.  US allies in Asia face complex choices on these issues, and none of them is risk-free.  We cannot avoid those risks by relying on the preservation of old structures and arrangements in the new and very different circumstances of the 'Asian Century'.  Faced with two risky options, it makes sense to choose the course that offers a better long-term outcome.


Having taken that choice, Australia would need to be prepared to invest a lot of diplomatic effort, and a share of its credibility, in the enterprise.  There would be three obvious elements to the campaign: in Washington, in Beijing and in the wider region.  Let's start with our neighbors in the region.  Australia's interests in a stable US-China relationship are shared by every other country in Asia.  We will all depend on strong relationships with both powers for the kind of future we hope for.  We therefore all need the US and China to get along, and to avoid the kind of competition or conflict that would require any of us to choose sides between them.  It should therefore be pretty easy to persuade our regional neighbors in Asia to join us in pressing the US and China to do a deal on nuclear weapons.  Strong and consistent support from the rest of Asia would make our message pretty hard for Americans and Chinese to ignore.  Two countries in Asia would be especially important-Asia's other major powers, Japan and India.


For Japan the question of whether to support such a proposal would pose major issues.  Like Australia, Japan would need to weigh the consequences for US extended deterrence of Chinese nuclear attack on Japan, facing the same choices that we do, but in a more intense form.  Japan is challenged and intimidated by China's growing power, and by China's apparent reluctance to concede legitimacy to Japan's re-emergence as a 'normal' power.  It has sought security against China by reaffirming its alliance with the US, implicitly endorsing a 'balance of power' model of Asia's strategic future in which the US, Japan and others cooperate to preserve US strategic primacy against China's challenge.  Japan risks painting itself into a corner with this strategy.  Its approach implies that Japan's future security depends on US-China strategic competition, because the more adversarial US-China relations become, the more important Japan is to America.  Japan has long worried that the US will sacrifice Japan's interests in favor of building a closer relationship with China, but avoiding this by accepting, even promoting, disharmony between its two most important partners is hardly an ideal strategy.  Persuading Japan to help press for a US-China arms control agreement would open a dialogue about Japan's options that may have wider value.  The recent Australia-Japan joint declaration on security should open the way for such discussions.


India also seems content for US-China strategic competition to bubble along, as this helps offset the strategic challenge that China might otherwise pose to India.  But New Delhi has other equities at stake as well.  For India, China's nuclear force developments have implications for its own nuclear posture.  India's nuclear concerns focus on China's shorter-range forces, and it could be argued that limits to China's intercontinental forces would free resources to expand China's medium-range capabilities.  However, India might also be attracted to measures which stabilize US-China relations, and could welcome the precedent that a US-China deal might set for the eventual negotiation of China-India arms control agreements. 


All these considerations should make the prospect of a bilateral agreement with the US more attractive to Beijing.  For Australia to propose such a deal to Beijing would take our diplomacy there to a new level.  Hitherto Australia has not really tried to engage China on strategic questions: our diplomacy has aimed to prevent those questions intruding into the trade and economic relationship, rather than try to influence China's views on them.  But as China's power grows, Australia will need to develop a substantive and robust strategic dialogue with China if we want to be able to promote and protect our strategic interests.  This seems a good time to start.      


Finally, it would be in Washington that the biggest and most demanding effort would need to be made.  America would be hardest to persuade.  Superficially it is being asked to give up the most, at least in the short term.  But Washington is a free marketplace for ideas, and its national policy debates are open to fresh thinking and bold proposals.  Washington's approaches to China are driven by a deep conviction of America's unique destiny to lead the world.  How that conviction can be reconciled with the reality of China's growing power and the Chinese sense of destiny that is growing with it has yet to be considered.  But Americans are smart people-smart enough to see that an open and integrated Asian regional order built on compromise and accommodation would be better for America than a closed and competitive one built on power blocks and strategic confrontation.  Taking the steps needed to promote this kind of new order in Asia-steps like the negotiation of an arms control agreement with China-would be a bold new departure for American policy.  Pushing America to take such a step would be a bold departure for Australian diplomacy.   Some in the US system would not welcome such an initiative, and question whose side Australia was on, America's or China's?  But if everything that both sides say about the nature of our alliance is true, about its closeness and depth and strength, then who better to make that case to Washington than Canberra?  What are we saying abut ourselves and the nature of our American alliance if, believing the case to be strong, we do not have the courage to speak truth to America's power?


And finally, what does Australia have to lose?  Of course we might fail.  But even a failed attempt to promote a nuclear arms control agreement between America and China would serve important Australian interests.  Our promotion of the proposal would be a powerful way to promulgate Australia's views on the future of the international system in Asia.  Australia accepts that as China grows its power needs to be respected and accommodated, and its role as a regional leader recognized-including by Washington.  That is an important message to send to Washington.  Equally we believe that China's growing power brings growing responsibilities, including the willingness to see its power circumscribed by the demands of wider stability and peace.  Even a failed campaign for an arms control agreement between them would get their attention and ensure they know what we think.  We have a right and a duty to be heard.  Australia's future is at stake too.



* Lowy Institute for International Policy is an independent international policy think tank based in Sydney, Australia. The views expressed in this paper are entirely the author's own and not those of the Lowy Institute for International Policy. 




24 See for example James Reilly (Rapporteur), Uncertain China: dealing with a potential Great Power, in China, Russia, and the United States: partners or competitors? Report of the Forty-First Strategy for Peace Conference, October 26-28, 2000, Airlie Centre, Warrenton, Virginia. http://www.stanleyfoundation.org/publications/archive/SPC00E.pdf.


25 Kim Beazley, China, the US and national missile defence: an Australian perspective, paper presented to the Monash Asia Institute's Third Regional Security Dialogue Beijing March 2004 forthcoming in Marika Vicziany (ed.), Controlling arms and terror in the Asia Pacific after Bali and Baghdad. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, 2007.


26 John Howard, Address to the Lowy Institute for International Policy: Australia in the World, Westin Hotel, Sydney, 31 March 2005 http://www.pm.gov.au/media/Speech/2005/speech1290.cfm.


27 I am grateful to my skeptical ANU colleague Stephan Fruehling for his insights on this and other issues. 

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Hugh White is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. He is a regular columnist for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.
From 2001 to 2004 Professor White was the first Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). Before that he had served as an intelligence analyst with the Office of National Assessments, as a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, as a senior adviser on the staffs of Defense Minister Kim Beazley and Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and as a senior official in the Department of Defense, where from 1995 to 2000 he was Deputy Secretary for Strategy and Intelligence.
His key recent publications include: "Beyond the Defense of Australia: Finding a New Balance in Australia's Defense Policy," Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, 2006; and "The Limits to Optimism: Australia and the Rise of China," Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 59, No 4, December 2005, p. 469-480.
His contact information: Email: hwhite@lowyinstitute.org, Tel: +61 2 6125 1562
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