The last time Australia had a coherent and effective policy on China was when John Howard was prime minister. Howard emphasised the positives in what was then a much simpler trading relationship.
Then, in Deng Xiaoping’s famous words, China was hiding its capabilities and biding its time. The Peoples’ Liberation Army was nowhere near the military powerhouse it is today. The Communist party’s forced annexation of much of the South China Sea was two decades in the future.
There is no going back to the Howard era. What has changed is that Xi Jinping has cemented his country’s path toward becoming a more aggressive, highly nationalistic, military power.
Xi is doing his utmost to “recentralise” all power in the hands of the Communist party. Leninist authoritarianism enabled by artificial intelligence and 5G connectivity is a chilling prospect and one that cannot tolerate internal dissent or external expressions of disapproval about the Party’s performance.
All of this was in train before Covid-19, and the locomotive is of the bullet variety. The speed of China’s military growth, its global cyber and intelligence infiltration, its use of financial power to buy legitimate and illegitimate influence in countries all around the world – all these factors are irrevocably changing how we must deal with Beijing.
Looking ahead, the biggest challenge for Australian governments is how to manage the huge risk of being overly dependent on a state whose strategic trajectory fundamentally compromises our deepest national security interests. China quite explicitly wants to supplant the US as the prime manager of security in the Indo-Pacific. That undercuts our alliance relationship and defence planning.
The Communist party, moreover, demands a style of supine fealty to their political dominance that cannot be squared with Australian democracy and values. Hence ambassador Cheng Jingye’s “wolf warrior” intrusion in Australian politics this week after Scott Morrison’s call for an international investigation into the origins of the virus.
Party central has directed diplomatic missions to more actively and angrily intervene in domestic debates, denying that Covid-19 has anything to do with wet markets, Wuhan, or indeed the party.
The ambassador’s concern – that the Chinese people, whose “feelings have been hurt” by Australia, will unbidden and spontaneously stop buying our wine and beef and stop studying and visiting here – is a line regularly deployed by Chinese officials and Party controlled media if countries offend Beijing’s sensibilities.
This list of “offences” is growing and includes any form of contact with Taiwan or Tibet’s Dalai Lama; opposition to China’s illegal annexation of features in the South China Sea; Australia’s decision excluding Chinese companies from the 5G network; failure to support the Belt and Road initiative; mentioning the Tiananmen Square massacre; complaining about Chinese cyber espionage; mentioning human rights and Xinjiang; the anti-interference laws and clampdowns on foreign payments to Australian political parties.
How can Australia shape a relationship with this increasingly sharp-elbowed state? For some years our politicians and officials tried to do and say nothing that would draw Beijing’s attention. One very senior Canberra official recently put to me the proposition that a week where the Government didn’t have to talk about China was a week in which we could sell it more coal and iron ore.
Covid-19 has ended the “don’t mention the war” strategy. One senses at political levels a deepening anger at constantly being challenged to pay homage to Beijing’s party line. I suggest five approaches that might produce better relations with the PRC.
First, our politicians, officials and media should spend less time obsessing about criticism from Beijing. When embassies make sharp comments, they are performing for their head office. We can afford to let much of this go through to the keeper.
Second, we need to be clear in stating our own “core interests” just as China does. One core interest is that China shouldn’t attempt to establish a military base in the Pacific. We need to be strong with Pacific Island states on that point as well as with Beijing.
Third, when China clearly transgresses, we should publicly call out the bad behaviour. For example, you can take it to the bank that China is right now engaged in full-on cyber spying on government agencies, politicians and businesses in Australia. We should be saying so publicly. This goes to the issue of developing trusted relations between capitals.
Fourth, Scott Morrison should use his new national cabinet to brief state and territory leaders about what our national security and intelligence professionals understand about Chinese influencing and espionage activity. That will quickly put an end to state flirtations with Belt and Road memorandums and happy-happy sister city relationships.
Lastly, with coal and iron ore we can be confident that we have products that China wants. They would find it painful to switch long-term suppliers. Chinese consumers also like Australia’s clean green produce, notwithstanding party flimflam about hurt feelings.
All the same we should be working as hard as we can to reduce economic dependence and diversify, diversify, diversify. Business should stop whining about how hard that is and understand that protecting the national interest is key to their own long term survival.
- Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former deputy secretary for strategy with the defence department