China’s big foreign policy plays leave Australia in the cold

Mar 24, 2023
President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping meets with President of Russia Vladimir Putin at the official welcoming ceremony in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow. March 20-22 / 2023 Moscow

The Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress in October last year may be seen with the efflux of time as a watershed event, not so much for the extension of Xi Ping’s tenure in the job, but for subsequent sharp policy resets.

This year began with the shock announcement that China’s zero covid policy, and its disruptive and traumatic lockdowns, was over. Victory over the pandemic was declared. China was said to be open to foreign business and was keen to attract inward foreign investment. Tourist visas would be issued shortly. The economy would recover with the government seeking something over five per cent GDP growth this year.

China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy was quietly shelved, and the Foreign Ministry’s high-profile aggressive spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, shunted out of sight. A charm offensive was now in the offing. Foreign Minister Qin Gang announced at the recently concluded National People’s Congress that the expenditure on ‘diplomacy’ this year would increase by 12 per cent over the previous year; at a rate of four percentage points higher than expenditure on defence.

On 18 February, State Council Foreign Affairs Minister, Wang Yi, announced at the Munich Security Conference that China was about to present a peace plan for the Ukraine conflict. On the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 24 February, China released a 12-point roadmap for a negotiated peace settlement.

Russia welcomed the Chinese initiative, while Ukraine’s President Zelensky acknowledged China’s intervention but rejected negotiations while Russia occupies Ukraine Territory (it is not clear if this applies to pre-2014 territory annexed in that year by Russia).

The US rejected Beijing’s intervention out of hand, partly because Russia had welcomed it. The timing was not helped by the fiasco of the errant balloon shot down over the US and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s abrupt cancellation of his visit to Beijing ostensibly because of the incursion. At the time of further far reaching and tough sanctions on exports to China of certain technology, especially related to chips, US/China relations have plumbed even greater depths.

China’s language protesting the new round of Biden sanctions and the shooting down of the balloon has, however, been restrained within what could be expected. Despite some sharp words, which would hardly cause offence, China’s response has been largely one of resignation. It is as if Xi Jinping has given up on trying to improve relations with the US.

As he made clear at the recent National People’s Congress, China firmly believes that the US is engaged in an international effort to contain it. China’s response then is to build a ‘Great Wall of steel’ to protect itself, in other words become more self-reliant.

At the same time, it is seeking to project to the so-called global south, or non-western aligned states, and perhaps some in Europe, an imagine of responsible global leadership as a peacemaker. Both Hungary and France welcomed China’s Ukraine efforts – if not the detail – to broker a peace settlement.

China had clearly begun to play seriously in the US global space – avoiding confrontation while demonstrating initiative and capacity to effect outcomes.

Then on 10 March (Beijing time) Beijing announced to the shock, it would seem, of just about everyone, and especially the US, that it had brokered a reproachment between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Suddenly, China was also starting to shape the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

This was hardly covered in Australia. It seemed that the symbolic and substantive import of this was lost on the local media. Symbolically, it announced that China was expanding the ways in which it was responding to US challenges; that it now saw itself as having global ambitions well beyond its customary East Asian sphere of interest, including in a region of long-standing, primary US influence. Substantively, as a major importer of Middle East crude oil and LNG, China was intent to ensure that it would be an active participant, perhaps the leading one, in securing its sources of supply.

Subsequently, Xi Jinping visited Moscow. China’s Ukraine peace initiative and the brokering of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran framed the visit diplomatically. Joint statements of support, enduring friendship and new strategic partnerships were predictable as was China’s refusal to provide military aid to Moscow. Putin looked and sounded like the junior partner in the relationship.

It is not too much of a stretch to think of China now as the dominant Eurasian power. While the US has sought successfully to rally its alliance partners in East Asia, in parts of Europe and has drawn India more closely into the QUAD, China has increased its influence in Central Asia (partly because of the weakening of Russia), in much of the developing world, and now in the Middle East.

The contest for global influence and leadership will come not so much from which country prevails in the western Pacific, but from which country dominates Eurasia with its vast energy and mineral resources, and strategic geographical setting, and exercises influence over the Middle East and Africa, for similar reasons of resources and energy.

In my 2020 book, China’s Grand Strategy, I argued that Australia faced a dystopian future with the end of the US-led international order with one replaced by a multipolar order comprising many authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian states in competition with the older democracies. The emerging order would comprise essentially two bounded orders – one led by the US and one by China.

As we can see, this would be characterised by competition in many areas, but also by cooperation where the interests of major players in each order are aligned, such as climate change. In recent days, we’ve seen another example of this cooperation with China’s support for the IMF’s financial bailout of Sri Lanka.

The challenge for Australia in this new world of bounded orders is that it is so utterly economically dependent on China while it continues to align itself ever more closely to the US. In view of the profound complementarity between the two economies, this dependency is irrevocable. Despite twenty years of promoting India as an alternative to China, and numerous reports and diverting of government resources, the dial has hardly moved in terms of trade flows.

With the QUAD and AUKUS, complementing ANZUS and the Five Eyes, as the predominant architecture of Australia’s foreign and security policies, Australia has now firmly embedded itself in the US-led order. It has ceded both foreign policy and defence independence. In these circumstances, China can be expected to redouble its efforts to meet its energy and resource needs from within its own bounded order at the expense of Australia. China’s becoming, perhaps, the dominant influence in the tortured affairs of the Middle East may well have brought that time forward.

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