JAMES O’NEILL. The Belt and Road Initiative and Australian Foreign Policy: A Golden Opportunity

Jul 5, 2017

The Australian Cabinet recently turned down an opportunity to join the world’s greatest infrastructure project.  The rhetoric and the approach disclose much about how Australia is failing to adjust to the realities of the 21st Century.

In April 2017 Professor Hugh White of the Australian National University delivered the China in the World Annual Lecture.  It was quite possibly the most important public presentation likely to be heard in Australia this year. In the lecture White addressed a number of key questions, all of them central to Australia’s relationship with Asia in general and China in particular, and what role in the region, if any, the United States might effectively play in the coming decades.

The lecture received little coverage, and even less informed analysis than it deserved. That may be because White questioned some of the most basic assumptions that have dictated Australia’s foreign policy in the post World War 2 era. Such questioning is far from welcome in the Australian commentariat, either in the mainstream media or in academia. In both, adherence to the myths of postwar geopolitics provides a comfortable reassurance, but does little or nothing to equip Australians for the very different order of the 21st Century.

White’s lecture is to be contrasted with the keynote speech by Malcolm Turnbull, delivered to the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2017.  Turnbull’s address was replete with repetitions of well-honed clichés.  Phrases such as “the US as a bastion of the rules based order,”” respecting the sovereignty of nations large and small”, and that “Australia’s foreign policy is determined in Australia’s national interest and Australia’s alone.”

White notes, by contrast, that over the past two centuries Britain (in the 19th Century) and the United States (in the 20th Century) used their wealth and their power to shape not only their own environment, but also the whole system within which they worked. That this was done in their own national interest, and at the expense of (often tragically) other countries is not usually part of the narrative.

China’s rise, says White, has brought that era to an end. China will be the richest and most powerful nation in the 21st Century and adjusting to that reality is the greatest foreign policy challenge that Australia faces.

Australia is still largely in denial about that reality. There are a number of reasons for this. Part of it is attributable to the speed with which the transformation is talking place. Another part is attributable to the Anglo-American mindset (of which Australia is a key part) that assumes that what was will always be. This is a trait particularly evident in our politicians. A third part is because our media persist in failing to acknowledge the contemporary reality of China’s rapid advances, of which technological innovation is only a part. (Fred Reed  “China Tech” 30 June 2017).

This latter point manifests in a variety of ways, from bizarre notions about invulnerability to missiles such as the DongFeng41 to persistent misrepresentation about the significance of the New Silk Roads, also known as One Belt, One Road (OBOR) and most recently the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The latter term was given currency at the recent conference in Beijing, attended by representatives of more than 100 nations, including 29 Heads of State or government, and more than 70 leaders of major international industrial organisations. Australia sent a junior Minister whose brief was clearly to watch and report back, and certainly not to commit Australia to any formal part of actually participating in what is by a significant margin the world’s largest infrastructure project.

It is much more than that however, as the BRI has profound implications for the geopolitical structure, not only of Eurasia, but also Africa and Latin America. The timidity of the Australian approach was perfectly encapsulated in a headline to an article in The Australian at the time of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Australia earlier this year.

The headline read ‘Cabinet saw no gain in Xi’s project of the century.’ (The Australian 29 May 2017).  According to the article, Cabinet twice debated China’s invitation to be linked to the BRI.  Foreign Minister Julie Bishop gave an oral brief to the Cabinet, itself extraordinary for a topic of such profound importance.  The Australian reports “the main reason for Australia’s reluctance was that there was no evidence that signing up had tangible benefits.”

It is difficult to envisage a more myopic or ignorant view.  At the very least one would have expected the relevant government departments to have prepared position papers so that the Cabinet debate was factually informed. The Chinese invitation had been foreshadowed when Bishop met her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in February of this year.

Such a casual and ill-informed approach to a serious matter suggests that other forces were at play. US antipathy to the BRI is well-known on several levels, not least because the Americans correctly perceive China’s rise, especially coupled with the strategic, economic and geopolitical relationship with Russia, as the major threat to its hegemonic unipolar view of the world.

Unlike Turnbulls’ brave claims at the Shangri-La Dialogue that Australia’s foreign policy was “independent” and always “in Australia’s national interest” the unilateral rejection of BRI had all the hallmarks of an unwillingness to move knowing that incurring American displeasure was always a possible outcome.

The contrast with New Zealand could not be starker.  As Jason Young (“Belt and Road: Australia Cautious but New Zealand Sees Opportunity” Lowy Institute 24 April 2017) points out, New Zealand became the first western developed country to join the BRI. This followed decades of New Zealand’s engagement with China, including a Free Trade Agreement years before Australia, early membership of the AIIB (which Australia joined despite American opposition), and military and civilian cooperation in programs in the Pacific region.

When Premier Li visited New Zealand, immediately after his Australian visit, one of the outcomes was the signing of a Memorandum of Arrangement.  This sets out a path toward even greater cooperation in the future.  New Zealand clearly does not see China’s development as a threat.  As with New Zealand’s withdrawal from ANZUS in 1984, the sky did not fall in and New Zealand maintains a good relationship with both the US and China.

As White points out, if “we are going to understand how to respond to China’s power, we are going to have to take the trouble to think more deeply about China itself, and so more justice to the complexity of what has been happening there over the past few decades.”

There is precious little evidence of that happening.  Given the rapidity with which change is occurring that directly impinges on Australia’s security and economic wellbeing, the time is long past for a more proactive and independent approach to our key foreign policy issues.


James O’Neill is a Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst.  He may be contacted at joneill (at) qldbar.asn.au

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