Provoking China to score cheap political points domestically does not advance Australian interests. While most Australians would prefer the US domestic political model to the Chinese, we are not going to change the Chinese system and so must learn to live with it. Complaints about Chinese attempts to influence Australian attitudes are naive. All countries, including Australia, try to influence the policies of others and China is no different. Our American ally has a long history of influencing other countries clandestinely and of overthrowing democratic governments that didn’t suit its interests. Nobody is in a position to cast the first stone. The government’s unnecessary public attacks on China achieve nothing and pose the risk of threats to Australian interests from China. If you lead with your chin you are asking for trouble.
The current media and political hysteria over China is largely driven by domestic political posturing and media hype, but there can be no doubt that the Chinese Government is trying to influence Australian attitudes towards China. All countries do that. The American influence on Australian politics is far greater than that of China and Ali Kazak’s recent blog showed the efforts made by the Government of Israel to influence our attitudes. Australia does the same thing in other countries. The intelligence agencies of all countries try to bribe, blackmail or otherwise control influential decision-makers in other countries where they have an interest. So why don’t we get worked up about these other countries? The government answer is clear. The USA is our friend and ally with which we share values. China promotes a different political system and doesn’t share our values. It is implied that China poses a threat, although this is denied unconvincingly by the Prime Minister. The underlying assumption in all political and most media comment is that we are tied irrevocably to the USA and that China is a potential threat strategically, even if our major trading partner. The US is said to provide stability in Asia although no evidence is produced to show this.
There are two questions to consider. First, we need to distinguish between how countries behave internationally and how they behave domestically. Democracies do not necessarily behave any better internationally than authoritarian regimes. The second is what values do we share with whom?
The USA has a long history of doing to others what China is accused of doing to us but going a lot further. It has overthrown democratic governments that did not suit American commercial or strategic interests and interfered with the electoral processes of other countries. The American reaction to Whitlam’s move towards greater independence is an object lesson to Australia. For all its faults, the American domestic system is much more to our liking than the Chinese one but what should concern other countries is how the US behaves outside its borders. The White Paper writes that the competition for influence between China and the USA will be won by China and therefore we should back the USA because it shares our values. President Trump has said he is putting America first, which is what China is doing. The only difference between Trump and previous presidents is that he says it out loud and, to be fair, tells other countries to put their interests first.
The values question is more complicated. Both Australia and the US practice and indeed promote democracy with missionary zeal as a system of government, so this is a shared value. As a member of the Coalition of the Willing and a partner in other American military ventures, we presumably share the same value that allows countries to invade other countries they don’t like. In the case of Chile, Australia helped the CIA attempt to prevent Salvador Allende coming to power. So are we in a position to cast the first stone if other countries follow our example? Do we really think others see us as having the moral high ground? One problem in dealing with the USA, as anyone who has lived there knows, is that there are many Americas. The people I knew in Boston did on the whole share our values, as do many of my American friends from other parts of the country, but the deep south and the mid-west bible belt are different countries. Do we share the American gun cult? Do we believe God has given the USA a special right that others don’t share? Do we agree with the current American exceptionalism that is the child of manifest destiny? If you follow our mainstream media perhaps we do! Our policies on trade and climate change are very different from those of the current administration. We certainly don’t share those values with the Americans but we do with China.
So we may conclude that some Americans share some values with us and that we are seen by Americans as loyal allies, but the danger is that we may be driven yet again into unwise American adventures to support US attempts to remain dominant. Does the alliance protect us or make us a target? Why would China want to make an enemy of Australia? The only way we are likely to get into a fight with China is through the American Alliance. The harping on domestic values and practices, combined with criticism of China which is not directed to other countries, can only be seen as bias which the government effectively admits to be the case by stressing the values line. Even allowing for an element of Chinese propaganda, China’s public criticism and calling in of the Australian Ambassador show that China sees us as biased. Even if we support the US against China, despite thinking the US is going to lose the battle, do we really have to rub the Chinese nose in it? The Prime Minister didn’t help matters by his mangled Mandarin which would have sounded to Chinese speakers like plisa dona squizza da froot does to English speakers. Whatever we may think of China’s system of government, we are not going to change it and must learn to live with it. We should not apologise for our values and way of life but we should respect others’ rights to do the same. Provoking China publicly to score cheap political points domestically isn’t going to achieve anything and could be dangerous. The bottom line is that the Prime Minister can best protect our interests by saying as little as possible. If you lead with your chin you must expect to get hit.
Cavan Hogue is a retired Australian ambassador with extensive experience in Asia and a former head of the Asia Division in DFAT.