Sam Roggeveen says that Mr Abe's visit last week, and Julie Bishop's interview with John Garnaut, show that the Abbott Government now accepts there is a serious strategic competition underway in Asia as China challenges US primacy.
If so, I think this would be an important shift. The simplest explanation for the Abbott Government's approach to strategic issues in Northeast Asia so far is that they simply do not understand how serious the strategic rivalry there is. As recently as last month in Washington, Tony Abbott was still talking down the challenge that China poses to the status quo in Asia – or at least that's how I interpreted his Chamber of Commerce speech.
Sam disagrees with that interpretation, but he suggests that the question is now moot. Whatever Abbott meant last month in Washington, Sam says, he and Bishop last week made it clear that they now see the situation more clearly, and that they have adopted Mr Abe's view that China is a major threat to the regional status quo.
But I'm still not sure they yet really understand the seriousness of China's challenge. To see why, look at how they intend to respond to it. Last week they signed up to Abe's plan to build a regional coalition of like-minded countries steadfastly to oppose China's ambitions for a larger leadership role in Asia. Abe sees Japan itself playing a major leadership role in this effort. That's why he was here in Canberra last week.
Whether Abe's plan is sensible depends on how China responds to it.
Abe hopes and expects that if China meets determined resistance it will abandon its challenge and accept the regional status quo. If so, his plan will have worked and all will be well. Sam thinks this is what Abbott expects too: he says that Abbott wants to damp down strategic rivalry in Northeast Asia by deterring China from upsetting the status quo.
But that only works if China reacts the way Abe and Abbott expect, by backing off. They assume that China's challenge isn't really very serious, because they think China is not determined enough about changing the regional order to risk confrontation with Abe's Japanese-led coalition or the US or both. And they assume China believes that our side is, on the contrary, determined enough to risk confrontation with China.
How valid are these assumptions? We do not have to guess about this. 'Our side' has already tried to deter China from challenging by showing our resolve to defend the status quo. It was called the Pivot. The whole idea of the Pivot was that when Obama declared he was determined to preserve the status quo, China was supposed to back off graciously. But it didn't work. Instead Beijing pushed back harder, by escalating its maritime disputes with US friends and allies, especially Japan.
So now our side is pushing back harder again – this time led, tellingly, by Japan. That's what was happening last week. Abe's muscular new strategic policy, which we have signed up to join, is his response to China's response to Obama's Pivot. And how will China respond this time? By far the most likely Chinese response to Abe's move will be to push back harder again in turn, because the evidence strongly suggests that China is determined to change the order in Asia, is willing to confront the rest of us to do so, and believes that we will eventually back down. So Abbott's decision to support Abe just helps to escalate the strategic rivalry another notch.
If Abbott really understands what's happening in Asia, he would understand how serious China's challenge is, and he would recognise that Abe's policy will only lead to further escalating rivalry and an increased risk of war. Which is why even after last week I still think that Abbott either doesn't understand what is happening in Asia or he does understand and he thinks that escalating rivalry is a good idea.
I prefer to think he still does not understand. Once he does understand he will, one hopes, have enough imagination to see that there are more than two ways to respond to China's ambitions. We do not have to choose supine surrender or inflexible resistance.
Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Republished with permission.