Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 10 December 2020



On China, we've sold ourselves out

Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne. Picture: Sean Davey.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne. Picture: Sean Davey.
  • 16 minutes ago 

Here’s a priority list for Marise Payne’s foreign arrangements taskforce to apply the government’s new veto power: Victoria’s Belt and Road Initiative memorandum of understanding with China; a dozen Confucius Institutes at Australian universities (NSW removed one from its Department of Education last year); and, at last count in 2018, 1741 agreements between Australian and Chinese universities.

According to peak body Universities Australia, there were 488 Australia-China university agreements in 2007. Close to a fourfold increase in little more than a decade should have sounded warning bells. By comparison in 2018 there were 996 agreements with US universities, 568 with Japan, 558 with Germany and 502 with the Britain. We have co-operated with these countries for decades, have comparable university systems and research cultures that are proudly independent of government, similar values and shared strategic outlooks.

Yet in a mere 10 years, co-operation with communist China, an authoritarian and repressive regime that does not share our values and has diametrically opposed strategic objectives, has come to dominate our universities’ international research horizons.

Under a policy known as military-civil fusion, Xi Jinping has subordinated much of the science and technology research effort of Chinese universities to the priorities of the People’s Liberation Army and China’s wider security and intelligence sector.

Research led by Alex Joske at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute shows that thousands of PLA researchers have studied at Western universities and disproportionally at Australian institutions compared with our Five Eyes intelligence partners.

Can anyone be surprised that the Morrison government saw a pressing need to review the international engagements pursued by our universities? Apparently so. UA chief executive Catriona Jackson says “(We) remain concerned that the laws will deter international partnerships, which are the lifeblood of research, knowledge and job creation.”

One test DFAT may like to apply in assessing these agreements is whether they advantage the Chinese military and intelligence apparatus more than our own. There are likely to be rich research funding opportunities for the first Australian universities that break away from the China income stream to focus on science and technology supporting Australian and allied security.

No doubt there are areas of research taking place between Australia and China that are benign, but across time Australians will probably be shocked to learn how tightly we have linked research activities in areas that have obvious military application.

That is because Beijing, through its Made in China 2025 plan, has a laser-like focus on buying or stealing the best science and technology knowledge from democracies to give it an unassailable lead in critical areas.

Was it ever intelligent to link our university sector so closely to that of the People’s Republic of China? In a world where China wants to supplant the US as the dominant military power in the Indo-Pacific and Beijing angrily will reject any Australian expres­sion of sovereign independence, how can it be good for our universities to be connected like this?

While unpicking research connections will be the toughest task under the Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Act 2020, pushing Confucius Institutes off campus should be an easy decision; universities never should have agreed them in the first place.

Confucius Institutes act to stifle debate on campus about Beijing’s behaviour by holding their continued funding over the heads of university administrators.

As for Victoria’s BRI memorandum, this confection is a fixation of Premier Daniel Andrews. How any state would think it intelligent to deepen its economic dependence on the wolf warriors of Beijing defies rational analysis.

The federal government’s determination to work its way through state, territory and university agreements with foreign entities is necessary. It shows to the world that Australia will not let itself be compromised and is prepared to end agreements unwisely entered in earlier times.

That said, there is scope for improvement. The bureaucracy sticks to the line: “This is a country-agnostic and an arrangement-agnostic framework that has been proposed.” The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade can stand ready to repel interference from Uganda, but make no mistake: 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the problem comes from the Chinese Communist Party. Pretending this is country-agnostic is what allows UA to claim, incorrectly in my view, that collabora­tion even with Five Eyes countries could be subject to “can­cel­­la­tion by any future foreign minister”.

We must also hope DFAT’s foreign arrangement taskforce won’t go the way of the Foreign Investment Review Board and conclude that its core task is to facilitate keeping and making foreign agreements as the most important objective. We need a tough national security mindset to look after Australia’s interests. DFAT will need help on that front.

Here is another task that DFAT must be better funded to perform: democracies everywhere are looking at Australia’s struggle with China and wondering if we have the bottle to stick with the fight. We need to persuade those countries that our battle is their near-term future. All democracies have an interest in strengthening their internal and external arrangements against Beijing’s relentless predation. Canberra has lessons to share and a need to bring the democracies further into our camp so Beijing understands we are not alone.

Peter Jennings is the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s executive director and a former deputy secretary for strategy in the Department of Defence.

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