MARK BEESON. The PRC is getting harder to like, but so is the US

Jun 5, 2020

China’s foreign and domestic policies are getting increasingly difficult to deal with, but so are America’s. A more even-handed approach to both might make life easier for Australian policymakers.

One of the more noteworthy features of the debate about Australia’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China is just how polarising it has become. At one end of the spectrum are the self-styled ‘wolverines’, a coterie of attention-seeking politicians that includes Andrew Hastie, Tim Wilson, James Paterson and Kimberley Kitching. What unites this group is a determination to call out China’s general aggression and interference in Australia’s domestic affairs.

It is not just elements of the political class that are working themselves up into a lather, though. Prominent commentators in the media and members of Australia’s strategic elites have also added to the general criticism of China, much of which was sparked by the publication of Clive Hamilton’s book, The Silent Invasion in 2018. In such an environment, people offering slightly more nuanced commentary, such as James Laurenceson of the Australia China Relations Institute, are seen as being constrained or even compromised by their institutional affiliation.

Interestingly, the same sorts of criticisms are almost never made about the ubiquitous Peter Jennings or the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, despite the fact that as John Menadue has pointed out in these pages, a large part of its funding comes from prominent arms manufactures such as BAE Systems, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, SAAB and Thales. It’s not necessary to be a conspiracy theorist to think that any organisation that gets more than half its funding from the Department of Defence might be sympathetic to its world view and interests.

It’s also not hard to see how in an environment of heightened concern about international security, decisions about buying expensive (and unproven) weapons systems are subject to little scrutiny and almost no public debate. China’s possible threat to the existing regional order that has for half a century of more been dominated by the United States is one of the principal reasons such spending get waved through.

For those of us who think that scarce resources might be put to better use, and that the Department of Defence ought to made  to give a fuller justification of its spending and the rationale that underpins it, this is a sobering, albeit familiar reality. But what’s really confounding is that China’s recent actions are making it increasingly difficult to make any counter arguments heard, let alone taken seriously.

Whether it’s the construction of concentration camps in Xinjiang, the repression of Hong Kong’s plucky democrats, implausible territorial claims in the South China Sea, or ominous rumblings about the need for ‘reunification’ with Taiwan, there’s a lot not to like about Chinese foreign policy at the moment. It’s not hard to see why the hawks are in the ascendancy when it comes to China policy.

By this stage of the debate about relations with China there’s probably one thing we can all agree on: getting it right is both important and difficult. As Chinese power has grown so has a sense of self-righteous nationalism and an intolerance of criticism. Yes, it’s difficult and dangerous to generalize about a county of nearly 1.4 billion people, but anyone who visits China regularly can’t help but notice a shift in the national mood and a growing sense that countries like Australia ought to know their place.

In such circumstances, it’s not surprising that China’s smaller, less powerful neighbours generally feel alarmed, anxious, and vulnerable. Sheer economic and strategic might accounts for much of this, no doubt, but so does a form of Chinese foreign policy that is doing little to reassure the region’s nervous Nellies. This would be a problem at any time, but it seems particularly ill-advised when the United States seems bent on abdicating its international leadership position and consumed with domestic problems.

The question for those of us who try to take an even-handed view of international relations, especially as they affect so-called middle powers like Australia, need to answer is: were the hawks right all along? To which the unambiguous answer would seem to be, yes and no.

True, China seems to be fulfilling all the gloomiest predictions about great power behaviour and a proclivity for national self-assertion. And yet even if that’s the case, would Australia’s ‘national interest’ be best served by trying to ingratiate itself with an American administration that even widely respected observers think may be pushing the country toward civil war?

On the other hand, this ought to be an opportunity for China to assert its otherwise rather unlikely claims to global leadership. With a bit of encouragement they might yet become a ‘responsible stakeholder’. In reality, though, neither the US nor China inspire confidence or admiration at the moment. Recognising that at least is even handed, although something our political and strategic elites continue to deny. When China is becoming even harder to like and the United States seems intent on self-destruction there is a case for standing on the sidelines.

Indeed, middle powers like Australia might take a leaf from Deng Xiaoping’s playbook and hide our capacities and bide our time, while maintaining a suitably low profile, of course. Marise Payne please take note: you may not especially like our most powerful and important neighbour, but there’s not much to be gained by gratuitously provoking them either.


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