Look at China’s response at the weekend, for example, to the latest outrage by its ally, North Korea. The regime of Kim Jong-il made an unprovoked torpedo attack on the South Korean navy corvette, the Cheonan, killing 46 crew.
Pressed at the weekend by the leaders of Japan and South Korea to discipline North Korea, the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, conspicuously declined. He refused even to acknowledge North Korea’s culpability, which has been affirmed by a five-nation investigation by marine experts.
Wen emerged from a summit with Japan and South Korea on Sunday to say that “the most pressing task now is to appropriately deal with the grave impact of the Cheonan incident, gradually ease the tense situation and, especially, avoid clashes”.
The problem is that the clash has already happened. And, once again, China, the only big power with any real influence over Pyongyang, is showing no inclination to restrain its rogue client.
China pretends that the status quo is peaceful, rather than acknowledging that the status quo is actually a highly destabilising series of North Korean provocations, attacks and killings. And the aggressor is its ally.
By taking this approach, Beijing demonstrates that it cares more for power than peace. It protects its dangerous client to preserve its own sphere of influence. This is not the behaviour of a great power that wants to reassure its neighbours.
Speaking of countries’ reactions to China’s growing power, Michael Wesley observes: “There is a logic here, and it’s paralleled by a lot of other countries in the region – as countries’ economies become ever more enmeshed with China’s, the feeling of ambivalence towards China becomes ever more pronounced.
“Countries seek to construct offsetting relations with other powers. That’s the case in Australia, but also in Vietnam, India, Indonesia and other south-east Asian countries.”
The Lowy poll confirms that Australians are increasingly anxious about China’s rise. On the one hand, Australians have made an unprecedented acknowledgment of its economic ascendancy, and at the same time express growing alarm at its intentions.
Asked if China’s aim is to dominate Asia, 60 per cent of Australians last year said yes. This year that proportion had risen to 69 per cent.
Should Australia, the pollsters asked, join other countries to limit China’s influence? Last year 51 per cent replied yes; this year 55 per cent did.
Similarly, about two-thirds of Australians disagree with the proposition that Australia’s interests would not be harmed by an increase in China’s power. And a rising majority – up from 50 per cent last year to 57 per cent this – of Australians say that the government is allowing too much Chinese investment.
The more Australians see of China’s power, the more anxious we become about the consequences. And the more we resist its encroachments.
Will China, the pollsters asked, become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years? A minority, 46 per cent said yes, but the minority is fast becoming a majority, up by 5 percentage points in a year.
So it’s probably no coincidence that the same poll also shows the level of Australian public support for the ANZUS alliance is at its highest in the five-year history of the survey.
The more we fear China, the more we look to the US for reassurance, it seems. This puts the Australian government in an increasingly conflicted position. As China becomes economically more powerful, how should Canberra nevertheless retain a strong alliance with America?
Wesley suggests that the trick is for Washington to understand the pressures on Canberra, and for “the Americans not to expect Australia to make ever more explicit statements of allegiance”.
Yet that seems to be exactly what the Australian public increasingly wants – a clear US alliance as a strategic chaperone to our hot Chinese dalliance.