The Australian Government regards China as a strategic competitor, a revisionist power, and one that must be resisted.

At last the contradiction that over the past four years has been at the heart of Australian foreign and security policy towards China has been resolved. In a series of important announcements, the Australian Government has now made it clear that it regards China as a strategic competitor, a revisionist power, and one that must be resisted.

Over the past several weeks, Canberra has begun to implement what seems to be a well-coordinated and thought through plan to try to inflict pain on China in retaliation for China’s measures against Australia on beef, barley, students, tourists, and ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. A series of statements by both the Prime Minister covering foreign investment, cyber threats, new counter cyber-attack measures, an Australian-initiated meeting of ‘Five-eyes’ finance ministers, and last week’s defence statement are all directed towards China.

Although China is not mentioned, of course, it is the threat to which the government is responding, and groomed members of the media have been well backgrounded by ministerial staffers.

More pointedly, the Foreign Minister has criticised Beijing for its human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Both the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister have also criticised Beijing for the introduction of a National Security Law to apply to Hong Kong. But apparently having learnt from the unfortunate experience of his unliteral call for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, the Prime Minister is now keen to ensure that we do these things in good company.

The Prime Minister has also followed Britain to hold open the possibility that Australia would welcome refugees fleeing Hong Kong. Apart from Australia having no obvious moral obligation to do so, unlike Britain which negotiated the handover to China, it is an irony that won’t be lost on Beijing that this is being discussed by a government that turns around refugee boats from other places. This realist policy amplifies the message that Canberra is sending to Beijing.

So does Australia’s recent embrace of Vietnam as a part of its new balancing strategy towards China. While Canberra goes on endlessly about differences in our values with China and its political system, it conveniently overlooks the fact that Vietnam is also a one-party, authoritarian, communist state with its own poor human rights record.

Australia has limited means by which to punish China for its bad behaviour towards it and its more aggressive regional diplomacy. In addition to what it can do against China bilaterally, Australia has also been reinforcing its regional diplomacy. For some time Canberra has been seeking to draw closer to India, in what is likely to be a largely unrewarded effort to enlist it in helping balance China, its Pacific Step-up, and earlier this year participating in an expanded Quadrilateral Group initiated by the US which has included Vietnam and South Korea.

This is the ‘new’ normal in Australia’s relations with China. Australia retaliating against China would have been virtually unthinkable only a few years ago in view of Australia’s massive trade dependency on China. To get to this point politically it was first necessary to de-legitimise business interests in the relationship. This has been effective to the point where now business and universities are largely silent, cowed from making comments, lest their calls for improved relations with China are seen as putting commercial interest above national interest and security, and money ahead of values.

China’s behaviour has crossed a number of lines which many states would regard as being acceptable. But it is unlikely to be troubled much by what Australia and others may do in response. Beijing has two objectives in its grand strategy: preserving territorial integrity and maintaining the rule of the Communist Party. Only the United States threatens these.

Over the past few years, the US has declared China to be a strategic competitor. Both Vice President Pence’s Secretary of State effectively seek regime change, the way that our own Minister for Home Affairs, Dutton, does when he freelances on foreign policy by making much of the distinction between the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party.

Australia’s 2017 foreign and trade policy White Paper was redundant before it was released. Australia had already joined the US in regarding China as a strategic competitor to be resisted, and acting as such, despite the White Paper’s emphasis on working cooperatively with China on areas of common interest. This has been the persistent contradiction in Australia’s foreign and security policies. No one can now doubt who is Australia’s enemy. Of course, if China is treated as an enemy it most certainly will become one.

The singular importance of the Prime Minister’s defence statement last week is not in budgets and kit, however material they may be, but in its recognition that Australia will need to find its own security in the new world order which is no longer led by the US, and in which Australia until recently felt so comfortably secure.

Unlike Australia’s neighbours, we have followed the US to this point, only, it would seem, to discover that we are alone in the world and that Australia needs to account for its own security in a dystopic future. The Prime Minister is attempting to rouse Australia from its strategic torpor.

Geoff Raby was Australia’s Ambassador to China from 2007-11. His new book, China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s Future in the New Global Order will be published on 3 November by Melbourne UP.

This article was first posted in AFR on 10.7.2020 and is reposted here with agreement.

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Geoff Raby AO is an Australian economist and diplomat. He served as the Australian Ambassador to the People's Republic of China from February 2007 until August 2011.

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