ANDREW FARRAN. What is it to be with China – cooperation or conflict? A response to Peter Jennings of ASPI.

Nov 9, 2018

In a prominent article in The Weekend Australian’s ‘Inquirer’ section on 3/4 November, headed “Canberra alone must control our China ties”, the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Peter Jennings, castigates the Victorian government, a large delegation of leading Australian businesses and the Australian Technology Network of Universities for having the temerity of engaging with Chinese counter-parts in pursuit of mutual interests. They are charged with being naive and operating outside their station. 

Jennings writes: “Unless our federal government better explains the national security risks, Australia’s relations with China will be driven by groups interested in economic engagement, not national security”.

As for the Victorian government in particular, don’t they realise, he asserts, that “the states and territories have no responsibility for national security and little or no access to the intelligence information that informs national judgments about Beijing’s strategic aims”. The sin of the Victorian government was that, in signing a Memorandum of Understanding at the Chinese Embassy in Canberra supporting China’s Belt and Road Initiative, they were in effect engaging in international treaty-making over the head of and in defiance of the Australian government. While the terms of the agreement have not been published, its purpose is stated to be that Victoria is “best placed to capitalise on the investment opportunities possible through the Belt and Road initiative, meaning more trade, jobs and investment in Victoria”. No prima facie constitutional issue here.

As for security, in each of the above cases Jennings’ injunction is that such dealings should be channelled through or monitored by the national security apparatus for the reason that we are already and effectively in a Cold War state with China and a false step anywhere could have irreversible strategic consequences, penetrated and reduced to a vassal state.

Spelling this out Jennings writes, after lamenting that the Federal Government itself has failed “to set the right framework for engaging with China”, that: “As the keeper of the intelligence keys, it’s only the federal government that is able to explain why there should be limits to building economic dependence on an authoritarian state focused on being a dominant military power”.

Really! Dependence comes about in other more serendipity ways as through the natural rhythm of trade flows, everyday interactions between peoples and comparative advantage. More often these processes lead to inter-dependence. So should our dealings with China revert to a straight-jacket approach as was the case with the Soviet Union in the days when there was a red under every bed?

Surely Mr Jennings is going too far. Curiously he might take a lead from a recent item in his own Institute’s blog, The Strategist. This recalled the wisdom of Sir Percy Spender, the distinguished Foreign Minister in the Menzies’ post-war governments. Spender believed that diplomacy and economic cooperation should precede military action, and that maintaining peace was more crucial to the security of the nation and its people than winning costly and destructive wars. He put diplomacy and economic policy in the service of national security. He placed the preservation of peace at the top of Australia’s strategic objectives.

Spender was not unmindful of security considerations but he did not cloak our essential everyday dealings with major powers under a tortoise shell of paranoia and security screenings. To be otherwise would only engender the worst of fears, on all sides.

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic and trade policy adviser.


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