Inside Story

Australia’s vanishing China policy

When the going gets tough, it’s clear that Australia really doesn’t have a fully-developed policy towards China, writes Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown 25 November 2014 1485 words

Opportunity for change: Chinese flags fly high outside Parliament House on 17 November, the day Chinese president Xi Jinping addressed parliament. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

One of the side effects of the visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping to Australia, New Zealand and the region in mid November was to raise questions about whether each of these countries has what might be called a strategic vision of their relationship with a country that has quickly become their largest trading ally. Xi’s suspicion that they don’t may lie behind his observation, addressing the Australian parliament on 17 November, that there needs to be more imagination and ambition in the bilateral relationship.

At a time when many in the rest of the world are asking China to be more active and take a greater role as a stakeholder, albeit on Western terms, it seems ironic that its current leader should make this point in Canberra. Australia is a fellow member of the UN Security Council and a major player in the G20, the World Bank and other global forums, and yet it seems not to have impressed Xi with any strong vision of its relations with the country he leads.

There is certainly a constituency in Australia that would be antagonistic to the very notion of having a strategy. To them, you shouldn’t hedge yourself in with self-imposed limits. You leave yourself maximum room for manoeuvre and, in the words of the great economist John Maynard Keynes, change your mind when the facts change. The most that many in this camp would accept is that a country needs a sense of its national interests, and goes out to defend these. At the moment, that means sticking by the United States, no matter what, and building up complementary alliances wherever else you can.

Xi’s words should at least begin a process of considering whether this approach is sustainable. At times, Australia’s stance comes dangerously close to outsourcing all the deeper thinking about strategic interests and global roles to the United States. If Washington says something should happen, it happens. If Washington vetoes it, then Australia follows suit. (Witness Tony Abbott’s quick reversal of his initial interest in being part of the Chinese-instigated infrastructure bank.) Ironically, this seems to work in every policy area barring the one in which Australia might well argue it really should follow in the slipstream of the United States – action on climate change. The embarrassment of holding a climate-light G20 a few days after the United States and China announced a major deal on carbon emissions only served to underline, at least to Chinese officials, that Australia is kept in step by the United States when it matters to it, and then simply kept in the dark when it doesn’t.

Like the United States, Australia welcomes a strong, peaceful, cooperative China. No surprises there. And yes, it wants a China mostly in our own political image – just like America does. It has a common conceptual language with China on many economic issues, and like the United States it has trouble when the dialogue gets to values and rights. Australian companies love the Chinese market, and Australians on the whole see value in getting benefits from the Chinese economy and its links with their country. But these things simply add up to a framework for pragmatic engagement. Even the free-trade agreement, which was levelled off when Xi was in Canberra, doesn’t go much further towards answering the question of what Australian policy towards China really is.

It isn’t as though the question hasn’t been exhaustively considered by policy-makers and their political masters across Australia. And in many ways, it might be more accurate to talk about a multi-strand policy, involving individual states and the federal government, rather than a unified position. This is not unusual: the European Union could be accused of having not one policy towards the People’s Republic but twenty-eight, reflecting the number of member states. What is odd is that Australia sounds like it has a policy, and does the things that a country with a policy might do – but when the going gets tough (under pressure from America or from domestic interests) the policy vanishes. The cause célèbre is the Australia in the Asian Century white paper, issued to great fanfare in 2012 as the herald of a new era of regional engagement, with China at the centre. Those seeking this report now have to rummage around in the online archive of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Britain did a similar thing, specifically about China, in 2009, and that paper too has more or less vanished from cyberspace.

Does this mean that, in its heart, Australia doesn’t want a policy? The signs are that it wants to look like it has a China policy, but that thinking about what the world will look like in a decade’s time, when China will be a bigger, stronger, more prominent global force, is really too demanding. Australia’s policy is therefore to make as much for itself materially as it can, and leave to others the heavy lifting of working with China to integrate it more closely into the global system. That means sticking predominantly by the United States, no matter what, tactically defending specific national interests from time to time (including perverse obstruction on climate change) and leaving it at that. In essence, work with the United States.

Were China a more predictable partner, this make-hay-while-the-sun-shines approach might do the job. But in a number of key areas, all of which affect Australia, that isn’t the case. The vulnerability of China’s growth is something Chinese leaders past and present have all drawn attention to. China’s unity is also much more fragile than outsiders might believe. (Chinese leaders certainly aren’t complacent about the issues on their vast western borders.) Its political model is undergoing very real reform, not towards what many in the outside world might want but certainly towards something more law-based and accommodating of the needs of the emerging urban middle class. Its environmental problems are simply vast.

In any of these areas, China could all too easily receive a killer blow. And a killer blow to its stability and prosperity would in many ways be a killer blow for Australia. To daydream about the shifting interests of India or another market is, in the short to medium term, simply to indulge in fantasy. Like it or not, it is China or nothing for Australia’s future growth and prosperity.

The point of a policy is to try to deal, at least, with scenarios that involve some future influence and dynamic interaction. An Australian policy towards China would therefore need to look at China’s domestic challenges, admit they are directly linked to Australia’s own interests, and then work out where it might have influence. In some areas – such as technology and ideas transfer or deeper intellectual engagement – this would be to focus on the clear positives. In others, it would mean dealing with more challenging topics – how to mitigate partial pandemics or an environmental collapse in China, if they were to happen, for instance. A policy also has to think the unthinkable. If China did implode or collapse, what would Australia do? One of the merits of thinking through doomsday scenarios is that it sharpens minds and makes everyone intent on avoiding them, however unpleasant the process of thinking them through might be.

A policy is not simply a risk strategy. Australia has proved quite good at thinking through the risks of China’s rise regionally. But a fundamental part of its thinking should now be about what sort of China might exist in ten to twenty years, and in what ways that country is important and influential for Australia, and Australia for it. This is a positive part of policy formation.

Those who remain sceptical about the need for a strategic vision like this should remember that even if Australia doesn’t have a vision about China, China certainly has one about it. That vision was outlined by Xi Jinping last week, when he talked about an Australia that would increasingly be part of the economic, and therefore the geopolitical, realm of a China-influenced world in which the luxurious isolation of the past is over. After all, China has had a culture of strategic thinking for thousands of years. Look at the words of Confucius in the Analects: “To lead into battle a people that has not first been instructed is to betray them.” And in terms of future economic and security challenges, that is precisely the mistake that the Australian government has been making. Xi’s visit offered the chance to change that. Let’s hope it is taken. •