Albanese’s China reset leaves national security establishment in the cold

Nov 22, 2022
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

We should all welcome a bilateral decision between Australia and China to tone down the language, lower the temperature and to resume discussions of mutual interests.

But Australians, or the very hawkish Canberra national security establishment would be deluding themselves if they imagined that this represented any Chinese backdown on the differences which have festered between us, or some triumph for the quarrel-picking Australian diplomacy of recent years. It is, rather, only an incidental corollary of China’s decision to get a conversation going with the United States again. That the two sets of discussions followed remarkably similar lines — the US one naturally earlier and at greater length than the brief conversation between President Xi Jinping and Anthony Albanese is simply a reflection of China’s willingness to accept us in our chosen role as an automatic follower of the US.

China may well have recognised that resetting Australian relations would also be in its interest. It has been openly inviting a new start, not least since Albanese won at the elections six months ago. But while Australia was insisting on having every conciliatory word accompanied by some unnecessary belligerence, it would not have given this new start any great priority had it not seen the virtue of getting its political and trade relations with the US back on the right track. The western audience, not least the Australian one, has been primed in recent years to regard China as an implacable enemy, in inevitable conflict with the US over military and political hegemony in Asia. War with China over the future of Taiwan has come to be seen as likely and soon. The militarisation of islands off the Chinese coast has been seen as deeply sinister and a sure sign of plans for aggression, just as the build-up of the Chinese navy has been read as a sign that Australia needs a fleet of nuclear submarines, and American air force bases able to strike China from the Northern Territory. Key figures in the intelligence establishment, and unregistered lobbyists for American interests treated as Australian seek continually to dominate the local political space devoted to defence matters, and even amateur historians guarding our borders from people fleeing from war speak meaningfully of hearing the drumbeats.

Albanese has made it clear that he has no intention of rolling over on any Australian grievances in trade, nor in summarily dropping Australian defence preparations. But he has committed himself to continuous dialogue rather than name calling with most channels of communication left closed. In looking to a re-set (nothing by way of dropping any of the trade sanctions is formally on the agenda yet) he would do well to attend to a re-set at the Australian end. First, he needs a new national security establishment to advise him. Not the very right wing and very hawkish team chosen by Scott Morrison, almost all of whom give the impression of having a higher loyalty to the general interests of the western alliance, as seen from Washington, than to Australia’s own interests as a member, albeit a junior one. It has gone without saying that the interpretation of where Australia’s best interests lie has turned on the conclusion that Australia will always be better off if the US is an ally beholden to us. Thus, the reasoning goes, we should stand beside them even when we feel that doing so serves no interest other than keeping the US national security establishment happy.

Whenever I hear this argument, I am reminded of something a senior US official remarked to me in Washington, soon after a visit to President Reagan by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher 25 years ago. She spoke at a dinner with the secretary of defence and of state and assorted officials about Britain’s long and close relationship, and bonds of kinship, with America. Someone responded, “Yes ma’am, I can see your argument. World War I and II and all that. We do value our relationship with Britain. But when we are thinking about what is in America’s national interest, we consider the position or views of Great Britain about as often as Britain, in considering its own national interests, thinks of the Isle of Wight.”

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