Now that the Australia-China relationship has hit a new low, the timing’s right for charting a way out of the current impasse.
Australia’s post-pandemic economic recovery over the next generation – not just coming weeks or months – depends on it.
To do so requires a dialling down of the ferocious noise on both sides. But that’s hard given the now structural factors in the relationship, namely the unstoppable momentum of mutual suspicion and acrimony amongst the bureaucracies and media in both capitals.
A lower temperature is unlikely whilst a more ideological, US anti-China policy taps deeper roots in American soil. The Trump-Biden contest over who is the toughest on Beijing underlines deepening consensus in Washington over what is now routinely cast as China’s existential threat to American prosperity and security. And the shouting there makes Australia’s real differences with the US on China policy barely audible.
National security hawks in Canberra’s security agencies and related think tanks have what they have long wanted. China appears once more as a spectral force in the strategic and cultural imagination.
Sensing vindication, some hawks construct straw men in the name of myth busting. Often, these are the very same voices which since 2017 have assisted in the very creation an ever-present, looming crisis. The spectacle is unedifying. And for those with a memory of the late 1930s, disturbing.
China’s sharp and worrying turn under Xi has brought with it a great power’s demand for deference, one that Canberra rightfully finds impossible to give. But neither the Europeans nor the Japanese have yet chosen to follow America’s China path. And while they are also sounding tougher, and taking their own measures in response to China’s ‘wolf-warriors’, EU and Japanese leaders haven’t sought to needlessly provoke China.
China hawks here face tough questions as to what comes next. The push for more ambitious decoupling would inflict serious economic damage. Quadrilateral dialogues and an Anglosphere reborn might offer warming fora for swapping strategic notes on Beijing and sending firm messages about Chinese coercion, but a grand, new-NATO type coalition they are not. Nor should they aspire to be.
The prime minister finds himself at a critical juncture in his management of Australian foreign and economic policy. If he is genuinely haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s he might also bear in mind the legacy of poor Australian political leadership in that decade and the implications for his place in history. He knows only too well that managing COVID-19 leaves little time for foreign policy.
But his task is to find a way of stabilising the relationship with China or otherwise bear significant responsibility for hindering Australia’s economic recovery out of the COVID-19 crisis. Both sides are going to have to move. Australia has to rebuild trust while looking into the whites of Beijing’s eyes, all the while not kowtowing as Beijing clearly wants it to do. This is a herculean diplomatic feat to attempt. Short of an American U-turn on China – one perhaps more likely under Trump than Biden – it may well mean there is now the very real possibility that improvement has to wait for leadership change in Australia and China.
There is only so much the prime minister can do, constrained by the hawks in his own party and close advisers, along with pressure from Washington. The hawks wouldn’t have liked the approach taken by former foreign minister Alexander Downer after the 1996 Taiwan straits crisis, in which he met with the Chinese Ambassador in Canberra and called for common sense to stabilise the relationship. They wouldn’t like a public statement that makes it clear that the decoupling of Australia and China in terms of trade and technology is neither possible nor desirable. This is the choice Morrison now has to make, lest the current course do serious damage to Australian prosperity and security.
But Canberra can work with other major partners in Asia, especially Japan, to get a message to Beijing that Australia remains a secure and reliable economic partner, despite the differences we have.
Other opportunities for rebuilding trust surely lie in the agreed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership where again, common interests such as liberalisation and trade reform can be pursued within a forum committed to keeping the global trading system open.
And the Trade Minister ought to attend November’s Trade Expo in Shanghai. These are not grand diplomatic gestures that could be interpreted as Australian weakness. They are consistent with the prudent, pragmatic and reason based Australian diplomatic tradition.
Amidst all this, it is understandable that one of Australia’s major sheep exporters has pleaded for everyone to just ‘shut-up’. That frustration surely points to the need for the prime minister and his office to take tighter control of government statements on China. At the moment some of the briefing of selected, unsceptical journalists, particularly that by security agencies, only results in routine, breathless furore.
Australia has had abysmal periods in its relations with China before, and emerged from them. That China has changed under Xi does not render the clear-eyed practicality of the Hawke and Howard governments irrelevant. True, new approaches need to be found, new tactics adopted, new strategies devised. But that task is infinitely more crucial to this country’s future than the force-fed diet of fear and phobia that disfigures national life, exacerbates tension and risks far graver strategic and economic crises.
This article was first published in the AFR.