Our actions and public statements on Huawei and other Chinese investments clearly identify China as a potential threat which logically makes it an enemy. We do not apply the same standards to other countries which have the same technical capability. The US has been pressuring other countries to follow its lead in banning Huawei. How does American pressure differ from Chinese pressure? Our answer presumably would be that one is an ally and the other is a potential threat? This sends a clear message to China which so far has had a limited effect on our trade and other relations but how long will this last? It could be argued that the only reason China would have to be hostile towards Australia is because of our close alliance with the USA.
While it suits Australia and sometimes also China to paper over the cracks with soothing noises about the relationship, the fact is that if there is a problem we started it. There are many countries in the world that have the capability to do what Huawei is accused of having the potential to do but China is the only country we have singled out for public comment and action. Other comments and actions by the government are along similar lines. So why is using Chinese technology a threat? It can only be because we see China as an enemy. We do not attack other countries with the same capability because we don’t see them as enemies. This is a pretty clear message to the Chinese! We criticise China for aggression in the South China Sea and elsewhere but ignore the same or even worse aggression by our allies. In the case of Iraq, Vietnam and Afghanistan, we joined in. What is China doing internationally that the US does not do? Huawei’s rotating Chairman, Guo Ping, made this point at the Mobile World Congress when he referred to leaked evidence that the NSA had hacked Huawei. His claim that Huawei would never do anything like this is less telling! He said that politics should not get involved in technology which, of course, is exactly what Australia is doing and is accusing China of doing, or at the least of having the potential to do. One can be cynical about Chinese protestations of innocence but we should be equally cynical of similar US claims.
China clearly sees us as a running dog of the Americans and will interpret our actions in that context. The Americans for their part expect loyalty from us. They complained, for example, when we allowed China to build the port in Darwin because the US government had not been consulted in advance – perhaps so they could try to veto it. Possibly the stationing of marines was a result? The US is now putting pressure on other countries to follow its lead in sanctions on China. Clearly we are expected to join where US interests are involved. That is the price of the Alliance. The US gives us intelligence that we would not otherwise get. That is not in doubt but the question is how accurate is it and how much of it would we need it if we were not a US ally?
The US has been pressuring allies to follow its sanctions on China and in particular not to buy Chinese technology. This is about the contest between two powerful powers. China threatens American technological, political and economic dominance and the US will do everything in its power to win. Guo Ping correctly said that this was what it was all about. This should not come as a surprise and is far from being unusual human behaviour. The US also has a long track record of subverting countries and governments that threaten its perceived interests. It is not the only country in the world to do this but cannot claim the moral high ground over China when China behaves in the same way.
It is true that we have a different society from China and do not share all the same values. It could be argued that we do not share all the same values of the US which has the death penalty, a poor health system, a gun culture and a different approach to the rules-based trade order. But how relevant are shared values? There is an old saying that countries don’t have friends, they have interests. If you look at the countries the US has close relations with. like Saudi Arabia and myriad Latin American dictators. shared values don’t seem to be a factor in US foreign policy. So should we look to a relationship with China which does not involve a missionary approach to spreading our political culture? The Chinese suffered European aggression for over a century and believe they have no illusions about the values of Western nations.
We claim we want to be friends with both countries but we have a funny way of showing it. If we don’t want to get caught up in a fight between two roosters, should we not move closer to the middle? Of course, this is easy to advocate but it is not easy to achieve politically. Australia is saturated by American news and culture so becoming more independent would not be easy in terms of domestic politics. Neither major party has tried it, probably for that reason. On the contrary, the fight for votes has given rise to the promotion of fear. But we could try. The crystal ball is a bit murky but there is a strong chance that China will end up as the more powerful of the two countries and that it may decide to pressure Australia politically through trade or other means. By leading with our chin for domestic political reasons we may be sowing dragons’ teeth which will rise to bite us in the future. For all our loyalty we cannot expect the USA to come to our aid if it doesn’t suit them. On the other hand, if the US gets into military adventures of one kind or another against China, we will be pressured to join and, in any case, our hosting of Pine Gap and our close integration with the US military will make it hard to stay free of entanglement in yet another dubious American adventure. If we were not a close ally of a country that threatens Chinese interests, why would China be hostile towards us?
Cavan Hogue is a retired Australian diplomat with extensive service in Asia and the Americas.