Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 11 September 2020



Five dangerous myths in Australia's relations with China

Rory Medcalf

This is not just a problem of over-heated rhetoric or a cycle of tit-for-tat. China is playing a different game from us.

This week brought yet more grim news for relations between Australia and China.

But it is vital to understand these latest ugly moments in a larger frame of strategic power play and enduring national interest.

The Australian Financial Review's Michael Smith has been forced to return from China.  Nine News

The immediate story is well-known. An Australian citizen, Cheng Lai, is in indefinite detention in China amid claims of imperilling Chinese national security.

The last two China-based journalists for Australian media outlets, Bill Birtles from the ABC and Michael Smith from this newspaper, were flown home amid concerns for their safety following visits and exit bans from Chinese state security.

Then there came revelations that back in June, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation had interviewed Australian-based reporters for Chinese state media organisations as part of the foreign interference investigation surrounding an NSW Labor politician and his adviser.

Those PRC state press employees subsequently returned to China. Two Chinese academics long associated with Australia had their visas cancelled over alleged foreign interference concerns.

All of this troubling news has been surrounded by fiery rhetoric from the Chinese government and its Communist Party media mouthpieces, and the threat of restrictions on Australian exports.

The Australian government insists its actions are defensively focused on sovereignty, such as new measures to oblige state governments and universities to align with the national interest.

This is not about Australia and the world ganging up on China, but rather seeking safety in numbers.

Most important is the global context of China’s deepening confrontation with many nations, and the inseparability of this struggle with the changed character of the People’s Republic.

Nobody in Australia has any illusions that – whatever China’s achievements in economic growth – it is a Communist one-party state, now morphed from experimental openness to something approaching totalitarianism, where the number one imperative is control. Extreme nationalism – manifested as an overreach of assertion, coercion and manipulation abroad – is entwined with domestic repression. The goal is sustaining the Communist Party and the current leadership of Xi Jinping in unquestioned power, at any price.

This background helps pierce some myths being aired over the current state of Australia-China relations.

Myth number one is that the problem is largely a matter of rhetoric, as if by changing or nuancing certain words in ministerial statements, we could dissolve fundamental differences in national interests, values and behaviour.

In fact, Australian government rhetoric has for the most part been considerably more restrained than it could have been. Our government now frequently warns of cyber intrusion and theft but attempts every possible travesty of the English language (‘‘sophisticated state actor’’) to avoid naming China. That is hardly undiplomatic.

Myth number two is that we should place all events in a crude pattern of ‘‘tit-for-tat diplomacy’’. It is reasonable to speculate that the appalling treatment of Australian journalists in China was – at least in part – related to Australian agencies’ enforcement of laws on foreign interference. But the truth is Canberra and Beijing are not playing the same game, nor can moral equivalence be applied to the actions and accountability frameworks of our respective security agencies.

Defensive measures

Australia’s decisions can be explained as defensive measures in the long-term national interest, undertaken under domestic law to make the Commonwealth resilient in an era of disruption.

It is right to ask whether the government was mindful of diplomatic consequences – and doing what it could to prepare vulnerable individuals – when signing warrants for ASIO and the Federal Police to enforce the law. But by definition, no sovereign democracy can refrain from enforcing its own laws in order to satisfy a foreign power.

Myth number three is that the rupture in bilateral ties is inherently or largely Australia’s fault.

It is baffling that some observers suggest tensions began in 2018 with the introduction of Australia’s foreign interference laws, rather than with the preceding years of foreign interference those laws were introduced to stop.

The fourth myth, recycled this week by former Australia-China Relations Institute head and earlier foreign minister Bob Carr, is that Australia is acting to please the United States and not in our independent interests.

In fact, this is independent foreign policy at work, and if it involves displeasing the new great power on the block, then we all need to get used to it.

Elements of our overall strategy include the hardening of the nation’s democratic infrastructure, the protection of critical technologies, and the formation of creative new middle power coalitions to offset both a domineering China and a dysfunctional America.

Indeed, recent months have seen a springtime of this new diplomacy, from a seven-nation arrangement on COVID-19 response and supply chain resilience – the US-India-Japan-Australia ‘‘quad’’ plus Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand – through to a more geo-economics focused Five Eyes.

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