Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Tony Abbott is going to Washington at an interesting time. After months of rising tension, Beijing’s disconcertingly blunt words at the recent Shangri La security conference in Singapore, and its equally blunt actions against Vietnam in their maritime dispute, have brought the question of how to deal with China right to the centre of attention in DC. It will dominate the Prime Minister’s visit there this week.

Understandably, Tony Abbott wants America to keep on leading in Asia as the region’s uncontested primary power, just as it has for decades. And like most people on both sides of the Pacific, he keeps hoping that China would quietly go along with this, even as its wealth and power grew to match America’s.

This hope remains alive despite China’s increasingly strident demands for a bigger role in Asia to match its growing power. People have just assumed that China is bluffing. Beijing might want a bigger role, the argument goes, but will not risk a confrontation with America and its allies to get it. China will back off if we call its bluff by standing firm.

This was the idea behind President Obama’s pivot to Asia. He thought that China would stop challenging the status quo once he announced that America would defend it. Abbott has agreed: it is the kind of tough, simple policy he likes. But China hasn’t followed the script. Instead, for the past two years China has been systematically calling America’s bluff instead. This reality has finally dawned on Washington over the past few weeks.

Ever since November 2011, when Obama announced the pivot in his big speech to our Parliament in Canberra, China has been deliberately creating situations that present Washington with a simple choice between stepping up to a strategic confrontation with China, or stepping back from its leadership role in Asia.

This is what lies behind China’s assertive tactics in maritime disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. The disputed islands themselves do not justify any kind of confrontation, but they offer Beijing a perfect opportunity to test America’s resolve and show that power in Asia is shifting China’s way.

It works like this. China knows that the foundation of America’s power and leadership in Asia is its system of alliances and friendships with many of China’s neighbours, and especially its alliance with Japan. And China knows that these alliances depend ultimately on America’s willingness to protect its Asian friends from big neighbours like China. So China believes that it can undermine US leadership by showing America’s Asian allies that Washington is not willing to stand up to China on their behalf. And that is exactly what it has been trying to do in the East and South China Sea.

Of course China’s leaders do not want a confrontation with America, so they are gambling that America will indeed back down. They think that’s a safe bet for two reasons. First, they think US leaders realise that they could not quickly and decisively win an armed clash with China in somewhere like the East China Sea, and they think Washington would blink at the prospect of escalation that might not stop before the nuclear threshold.

Second, they can see Obama’s reluctance to use force in places like Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, and the broad support which his cautious approach has received in the US electorate. And Beijing’s confidence was been bolstered by Obama’s refusal, since his big pivot speech, to commit America unconditionally to support Japan against China.

Six weeks ago, in Tokyo, Obama finally made such a commitment, sounding again like a leader willing to use all of America’s power to preserve its leadership in Asia. But this didn’t seem to worry Beijing.  Within a week China launched another test of US resolve when its forces clashed with Vietnam after it moved an oil rig into disputed waters.

And Obama soon appeared to back off again. On 28 May he gave a major speech at West Point which sent some very muddled messages. He seemed to abandon his earlier focus on Asia as America’s strategic priority, scarcely referring to the region in his speech and reverting to the Bush-era focus on terrorism.

And Obama especially emphasised his reluctance to use force. America would always defend itself and its allies, he said. But “when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us - then the threshold for military action must be higher”. That seems to describe precisely the situation in Asia today.

All this did not just re-embolden China’s representatives at the Shangri La conference a few days later. It also restored Beijing’s confidence that Obama would back off if faced with a choice between confronting China and supporting Japan. And that of course makes Asia a very dangerous place. The way things are going, America faces a choice between a dangerous and potentially catastrophic clash with China, or stepping back from Asia.

This is the harsh realisation that is now dawning in Washington, and with luck it will dawn on Tony Abbott too. There can be no good outcome for Australia, for America or for Asia as long as the region’s future is framed in terms of this kind of choice. We need America to remain strongly engaged, but we also need to avoid escalating rivalry and conflict with China. So we need to reframe the issue by putting the choice back on China, but we also need to be realistic about what that choice should be.

It simply will not work to say that China must accept the status quo under US leadership or face confrontation with America and its allies. China will not believe it, and wouldn’t accept it if it did. Instead we have to offer China more – a bigger role in Asia’s affairs – and at the same time make absolutely clear that if China keeps pushing beyond that it will face resolute opposition.

This is hard diplomacy, and few in Washington or Canberra are yet ready to embrace it. Certainly Tony Abbott would prefer the simpler solution of just trying to face China down. But he will find this week that the more he urges Obama to stand up strongly to China, the more Obama will ask what help Australia will be offering if push comes to shove. 

Hugh White is an Age columnist and professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.