Outside the unnecessarily provocative rhetoric, it’s hard to see how Australia should have fundamentally managed the China challenge to achieve a different outcome.
The root cause of the deterioration of the Sino-Australian relationship is that under the authoritarian rule of President Xi Jinping, China has changed.
The great power ambition of Xi’s China to become the regional hegemon has collapsed the conventional thinking, or hope, behind decades of engagement with communist Beijing. The naive assumption was that as China grew richer, it would liberalise and remain geostrategically benign.
For Australia, China’s assertiveness poses a great and unprecedented strategic challenge. For the first time in our history, our major trade partner is our biggest security concern, and is directly engaged in strategic competition with our main alliance partner, the United States, for geopolitical supremacy in Australia’s Indo-Pacific region.
In a three-part series of articles published this week, Max Suich, this newspaper’s Tokyo correspondent in the late 1960s and early ’70s, says the deteriorating bilateral and trade relationship has been largely self-inflicted by Australia, and that the hostile response to our U-turn on relations with China was predictable.
The megaphone diplomacy employed by politicians and officials heralding Australia’s “pushback”, “calling out” and getting “out in front” on China has invited Beijing’s diplomatic and trade retaliation.
It’s true that Australia’s handling of the China challenge hasn’t always been sure-footed or avoided clumsy own goals due to needlessly provocative language and actions.
As The Australian Financial Review has noted, the unilateral call for an inquiry into China’s handling of the pandemic, the ill-timed decision to overturn the approved sale of a strategically unimportant dairy company to Chinese buyers, and the recent decision to cancel Victoria’s meaningless Belt and Road agreement have needlessly antagonised China. As would cancelling China-owned Landbridge Group’s lease of the Port of Darwin.
The difficulties can’t simply be blamed on Australia’s supposed hawkishness.
But the difficulties with China can’t simply be blamed on Australia’s supposed hawkishness.
China’s territorial ambitions in Taiwan and sabre-rattling militarisation of the South China Sea have led Canada’s dovish Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to twice send warships through the Taiwan Strait.
Jacinda Ardern has also walked back from her Foreign Minister’s position on expanding the remit of the Five Eyes intelligence agreement, by saying it’s getting “harder to reconcile” differences with New Zealand’s largest trading partner amid escalating human rights abuses against the Uighurs.
Nor has Australia suggested COVID-19 was developed in China, which is the Sinophobic conspiracy promoted by the uber-populist President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil – China’s other chief iron ore supplier.
The reality is that the changes in China have left Australia with no alternative but to adjust its strategic posture to protect its sovereignty.
Hence the Morrison government’s regional alliance strategy to collectively manage China. This includes the new defence pact with Japan, and is spearheaded by the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, the US, Japan and India.
The Quad also advances Australia’s goal of engaging the US in the region and maintaining the postwar Pax Americana that has delivered security and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and allowed China to peacefully rise.
Australia has rightly rejected the false choice demanded by defence pessimists who say that China’s rise will inevitably require trading submission for security.
It has also rightly called out China’s cyber and political interference through the world-first exclusion of Huawei from the 5G network build, Malcolm Turnbull’s foreign interference laws, and the Morrison government’s Foreign Relations Act.
This has all come at the cost of displeasing Beijing, which has punished Australia by placing bilateral relations into the deepest of deep freezes, and imposing politicised trade sanctions on our beef, barley, wine and coal exports.
Outside the rhetoric, it’s hard to see how Australia should have fundamentally managed the strategic challenges differently. Perhaps different rhetoric would not really have produced a different outcome overall.
However, Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong is right to call out the government’s “drums of war” messaging.
As the record iron ore exports and price show, repairing the mutually beneficial two-way China-Australia trade relationship is in the interests of both nations. Exaggerated rhetoric beating up the threat of war is the opposite of the “strategic patience and consistency” Scott Morrison says is needed to manage China back behind a rules-based international system.
However, the chief obstacle to achieving this is not Australia’s hawkish attitude to China; it’s China’s aggressive attempt to expand the domestic authoritarianism of President Xi into the Indo-Pacific region.