The prosperity of millions of Australians has become dependent on the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This unambiguous material reality explains why Australian policymakers and commentators spend so much time fretting about how to manage the relationship. The sheer material importance of the Chinese economy to Australia means that policymakers in this country have no other option other than to try and get the relationship right – even if they are not happy about what China’s so-called rise may mean for other elements of Australian foreign policy. In some ways, this relationship presents new and novel problems for Australia. In some ways, it reflects longstanding debates about ‘our’ relationship with Asia and the region of which we are a significant, but perhaps increasingly less important part. If we want to understand why Australia’s relationship with China (and the region) is so controversial at times, we need to put it in historical context and think about the different, often contradictory foreign policy goals that have been pursued over the years.
I shall suggest that there are some encouraging aspects of recent policy, but there are also some familiar and perennial problems when it comes to relations with China in particular. There are also some potential solutions as well though. Recently, a growing number of commentators have been spruiking the merits of a more ‘independent’ foreign policy, which is a potentially good idea, for reasons I’ll explain. However, it’s easier said than done – not least because there’s a residual ambivalence and nervousness about ‘our’ place in the region and the associated belief that we need to cultivate what Bob Menzies famously described as ‘great and powerful friends’. For generations of Australian policymakers, it has been literally unthinkable that Australia should do anything other than rely on one great power or another for its security – as long as they were like ‘us’ of course. Even in the era of the most unpredictable and potentially damaging President in modern American history that reality is unlikely to change.
The historical reasons for what can either be seen as a sober assessment of strategic reality, or as a remarkable lack of self-confidence and imagination, are well known but worth repeating. As a settler society, a long way from its notional protectors, Australian policymakers, have been congenitally anxious about the country’s location. One might have thought that being far from international centres of conflict and surrounded by the world’s largest moat would inspire a sense of security, even self-satisfaction. One would be wrong. Generations of policymakers have fretted about what was generally a poorly understood Asian continent and the potential threat its vastly larger populations posed to an improbable outpost of Western civilisation. Such debates are still with us, of course.
To be fair, these fears were not without merit at times, especially when Japan swept through Southeast Asia during WW2 and dislodged the British from Singapore. Existential crises don’t get much more compelling – especially when quite a bit of the Australian army was off fighting far from home on behalf of the British empire – as it had even more improbably in WW1, of course. This pattern of trying to ensure national security by fighting alongside the great and powerful friend of the era has become an entrenched part of Australia’s strategic culture: no matter how tenuous the supposed threat or ill-advised the foreign adventure, Australia does its duty as what Tony Abbot described as an ‘utterly reliable ally’. The point to emphasise is that whatever the merits of Australia’s participation in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan might be, the pervasive, seemingly ineradicable sense of strategic insecurity these operations reflect places a major constraint over Australia’s foreign policy options. Before considering what might happen if President Trump calls on us to do our duty once again, it is worth highlighting why China poses such a distinctive challenge.
In some ways, the China challenge is more surprising than you might think. After all, we have been here before – at least as far as the economic element of the relationship is concerned. Not so long ago in the 1980s, Japan was our biggest trade partner, and there was a lively debate about the implications of Japan’s rise on Australia. As now, policymakers worried about the impact of Japanese investment on real estate prices on the Gold Coast, and the possibility that Japanese companies might be making ‘strategic’ investments in vital pieces of national infrastructure. Despite the fact that there was a mild outbreak of xenophobia around Japan’s activities in this country and the US, there was one very big difference to the current situation with China: Japan was one of the US’s key strategic partners in what was still known as the Asia-Pacific region, and a very subordinate one at that. In a remarkable transformation from only 40 years or so earlier, there was absolutely no strategic threat from Japan – unless replacing the US as the world’s No 1 economy could be considered as such.
Things are very different now. The principal reason China presents such a challenge to Australia – and to the US for that matter – is because it is not just an economic challenge. On the contrary, for some of this country’s and (more importantly) America’s most influential strategic thinkers, China is more of a security threat than an economic opportunity. For Donald Trump, of course, even the economic benefits have been wildly overstated, and he is determined to restore ‘fair’ trade relations as a consequence. For some of the most prominent American IR scholars, like John Mearsheimer and Graham Allison, a clash between the US and the PRC is almost inevitable, as a dissatisfied China looks to assert its growing power and the US tries to retain its place as the hegemonic power of the era. Whatever we might think of such claims, the point to emphasise is that they are taken seriously in strategic circles, and they help to shape the policy responses of our government as well as America’s.
One of the great hopes of our government for responding to the China challenge is that China’s leaders will be ‘socialised’ into good international behaviour simply by taking part in major international organizations. As Alexander Downer put it recently, ‘international leaders must educate China on what is and isn’t acceptable’. It seems not to have occurred to Mr Downer that Xi Jinping is now an international leader and also in the education business, or that he would take the slightest notice of anything we might suggest to him anyway. The hardest thing for many commentators in the West to grasp is that China might have its own ways of achieving economic development and engaging with the world, none of which necessarily involve becoming democratic or embracing political pluralism.
Even where China’s elites have apparently embraced the rules and norms of institutions created by the world’s capitalist powers, this has not necessarily been a triumph for ‘the West’. On the contrary, when China joined the WTO what looked like an unambiguous triumph of American principles and hegemony was rapidly revealed to be a Pyric victory: joining the WTO rapidly accelerated and facilitated China’s economic development and created yet another formidable Asian economic competitor for the US. It’s not hard to see why some in the US might think that it has been taken advantage of: they won the Cold War but seem to be losing the subsequent geoconomic competition that has become such a feature of the current era.
Despite this, Australian policymakers cling to the hope that China’s foreign policies will be shaped by the so-called rules-based-international-order (RBIO). It’s not hard to see why: for middle powers like Australia that cannot compel their more powerful counterparts to do anything they don’t want to, rules are important, especially if they actually have an impact. But for all the rhetorical importance attached to this concept in the utterances of our leaders, the RBIO is in real trouble, and not just because of China. True, China has chosen to ignore the rules when it judges its ‘core’ national interests to be at stake, as when it ignored an independent legal tribunal’s ruling on its territorial claims in the South China Sea. But Australia has also been guilty of similar conduct toward Timor Leste, so we can’t really complain too much about that without looking grossly hypocritical.
The more fundamental challenge to the RBIO comes not from China but from the country that many in Australia expect to guarantee its continuity and application: the United States. Donald Trump wears his populist nationalism as a badge of honour; his rusted-on supporters demand nothing less. It does us no good to criticise either Trump’s or his supporters’ economic illiteracy and short-sighted parochialism; the reality is that, rightly or wrongly, many in the US feel aggrieved at the way the international economy works and the amount the US has invested in maintaining an international order that seems to benefit others more than it benefits them. Such views are not going to disappear, not least because they are almost impossible to satisfactorily address. Their durability and influence threatens to further polarise American politics and reduce the concerns of supposedly trusty and valued friends and allies such as Japan, Canada, Germany, France and – of course – us, to second order issues at best.
There is nothing really surprising about this. The US is a ‘normal’ nation in one respect, at least: it puts its own national interests first and it always has done. Richard Nixon trashed the Bretton Woods system when it suited American interests to do so, for example. American presidents have all reserved the right to act unilaterally when national security is judged to be at stake and don’t see themselves as having to comply with the same sorts of standards that apply to others. They have been the universal rule maker not a rule taker for the past half century after all. Even Barak Obama drew the line at singing up to the UNCLOS agreement that China violated and reserved the right violate other country’s sovereignty when he judged it necessary. In some cases, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden, we might all applaud the result, but it is a telling indicator of the way the rules simply don’t apply to the most powerful states.
As China and a number of other rising powers jealously consider the benefits the accrue to the US as a consequence of its hegemonic position it is unsurprising that they feel aggrieved and would like to restore some ‘balance’ to world affairs: they would like the opportunity to act with impunity themselves, of course. This is why the example the US sets as the supposed leader of the free world and champion of democracy, liberalism and pluralism has been so important. True, the US may have frequently violated the principles it espoused and turned a blind eye to the behaviour of strategically important allies, but at least they were still making the case for the benefits of diplomatic cooperation and the possibility of progress in international affairs. The present incumbent of the White House not only has little appreciation of this historical role or the benefits it delivered to the US, but he clearly thinks international cooperation is a mug’s game.
So, what’s a trade-dependent, self-respecting middle power with a big stake in the continuation of an international order from which it has clearly benefitted supposed to do? If its principal security guarantor cannot be relied upon to come to our aid in time of need – or even to maintain stability in the region upon which our prosperity depends, does this mean we may need to radically rethink the basis upon which our external relations are predicated? It ought to, but it probably won’t, despite the rather belated interventions from the likes of Paul Keating, Bob Carr and a handful of others. The reality is that many of our leading strategists in Canberra cannot imagine a world in which our security is not tied to that of the US – no matter who might be running the country or what their policy agenda might be. One might have thought our experience with George W. Bush and the Iraq fiasco might have made it painfully clear that it makes a difference who runs the US and our interests will not always coincide with theirs. It is a measure of just how much impact trump has had that the likes of Germany and France are pushing for the creation of a European army to ‘balance’ against the threat posed by the US.
Should Australia follow the precepts of much IR theory and do likewise? Should we do the unthinkable and side with China, upon whom we depend so much for our economic security? This is quite simply an unimaginable non-starter – short of the US launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the region – although come to think of it…Seriously, though, there are no circumstances in which its possible to envision China and Australia becoming formal allies, especially if it was considered as part of a response to American policy. And why would we want to replace one subordinate and dependent relationship with another – especially one that doesn’t even notionally share the sorts of social and political values that we do?
But there are other regional powers in the region that not only share some of our values and political principles, but they occupy a similar ‘structural’ position in the international hierarchy of nations, too. The region – whether we call it the Asia-Pacific, East Asia or the currently fashionable Indo-Pacific – has a number of middle powers like us, with whom we arguably have much more in common with that we do with either China or the US, for that matter. Japan, South Korea, Indonesia are not only democracies, but they have a similar sort of weight in international affairs. The ‘SKAIJ’ group (everyone makes up acronyms these days, so I thought I might too), could actually champion and put into effect the sort of creative middle power diplomacy that is much talked about but seldom seen. None of the SKAIJ states has an interest in seeing great power rivalry and conflict; all of them have an interest in seeing powerful states play by the rules.
But we need to recognise that neither China or the US will willingly do so if it considers it not to be in its interests not to do so. We also have to recognise that the calculation of national interests is not a given, even for the Trump administration. A little creative thinking and some encouragement to behave well from potentially influential middle powers might have a salutary effect all round. Yes, it all seems a bit unlikely, I know. But what’s the ‘realistic’ alternative? Leave it to the hard heads who currently drive strategic policy in Canberra and other capitals? History offers some depressingly compelling examples of how trade wars, nationalism and arms races end. Might be time to try something different.
Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia.