Australia’s diplomacy with its Asian neighbours and contenders has always been awkward. In a similar manner to Britain’s awkward partnering with Europe, so Australia is Asia’s awkward partner. In the past we could calm our fears by relying on great and powerful friends. Those days are over. Australia needs urgently to plan for an independent future while integrating itself knowledgeably and sensitively into its region. First and foremost, that means learning how to relate intelligently to China, the emerging regional hegemon.
Sam Dastyari’s incredibly hamfisted dealings with Chinese business and media interests have provided a golden political opportunity for the Turnbull government to focus on alleged threats to Australia from a rising China. In the process others in our midst are being drawn into the muckraking – just ask Andrew Robb. The luckless Sam is not alone, but he is the in the government’s sights for the time being.
The Australian public is being subjected to a China scare campaign reminiscent of the Cold War madness of the 1960s when Australians were being warned that there was a Chinese “red menace” looming just over the horizon. Dastyari is a fool, for sure, but he is not a threat to Australia’s national security interest. The only threat he constitutes right now is to the Labor Party. Meanwhile the government is moving to enact laws to prohibit foreign donations to political parties – a policy that should have been implemented years ago. However, its rationale fore doing so is highly suspect.
We do need to keep in mind that whatever “espionage” China is up to in Australia does not mean it’s the only power prying into our national and business affairs – and for that matter, into our dirty laundry. The US has certainly been doing it for years. Other states have been, and will be doing it whenever it is in their interests to do so. And, of course, Australia is up to the same game – remember, for example, our spying on the former Indonesian president, his wife, and some of his ministers.
The confected hysteria about contemporary Chinese high-flying business figures peddling influence and Chinese spies infiltrating our universities and media is, nonetheless, a counter productive beat-up. Malcolm Turnbull’s enunciation in execrable Mandarin that Australia would stand up to China to protect its sovereignty was an ugly example of populist grandstanding at its worst. It is not in Australia’s national interest for the prime minister to behave in this hysterical manner.
As is so often the case in international politics, playing the domestic political card can be toxic as far as diplomacy is concerned. In his short-term need to score political points against Shorten Turnbull is risking a major long-term economic partnership with China. Business leaders in Australia are already warning the government about what is at stake if China decides to react to Turnbull’s way over-the-top politicking. Australia’s university sector could also fall victim to this diplomatic lunacy that could see a 28 billion dollar hit to our already fragile budget.
But it’s not just the myopia of short-term domestic politics that is the problem here. What Turnbull apparently fails to realize is that Australian foreign and security policy is now at a crossroad. With a re-emerging Chinese hegemon in our region, a Trump administration in Washington, and America’s seeming declining interest in Asia, Australia’s security planning is now in free fall. Should the country continue turning right to Washington, even as each day its president thrashes around like a crazed bull in a foreign and security policy china shop? Should it turn left, to Beijing, to try to expand what is already out most lucrative overseas market?
Or should Australia proceed straight ahead to adopt an independent foreign policy, allied to no one, a neutral friend to everyone? Turnbull seems to have already eschewed the “straight ahead” route. He loudly (and in the view of not a few foreign policy experts, very stupidly) proclaimed that Australia is “joined at the hip” with Trump’s America.
The time has come to position Australia as a clever middle power in its region, not the mendicant dependent middle power status it currently adopts as its security blanket. This necessarily means comprehensively reviewing the ANZUS treaty. The treaty has become the major cause of Australia’s awkward partnering – its diplomatic clumsiness – in the Asia Pacific. There are plenty of old hands who are alarmed at the idea of an independent Australia. But their worries do not take into account the rapidly changing geopolitics of Australia’s regional location.
Confecting hysteria about a China threat is thoroughly counterproductive. Of course we must protect out national security interests. But the approach the government is currently taking is not achieving that. For the basest political motives it is whipping up fear in Australia about a China that in fact does not have the slightest reason to threaten this country. But if we keep poking a burnt stick in the eye of the Chinese government, it will respond in ways we do not like at all.
In this country we have to learn to truly understand China, to anticipate its progressive development as a regional power, and to deal with it calmly and intelligently. Living in fear of China is an absurd way to go. It didn’t work in the past, and won’t work in the medium and long term future. It’s time for Australia to become a confident and independent state capable of standing up for itself without provoking more powerful regional neighbours and contenders. That means we must stop beating the anti-China drum immediately.
Allan Patience is a political science fellow in the University of Melbourne.