Seven weeks in government, and still no sign that Labor in office is prepared to rethink the relationship with either China or the United States. The two are not unconnected. The link is their common addiction to the China threat thesis.
The fact that Australia’s new defence and foreign ministers have met with their Chinese counterparts is no doubt a positive step. But it comes primarily as a result of China’s openness to the idea of resetting the relationship.
The Chinese statement released after the meeting between Wang Yi and Penny Wong on 8th July makes this clear. It reports Wang Yi as saying: “China is ready to re-examine, re-calibrate, and reinvigorate bilateral ties in the spirit of mutual respect, and strive to bring bilateral relations back on the right track.”
The Australian statement is far more guarded. It refers first to “Australia’s concerns about a range of bilateral, regional, trade and consular issues”, and then goes on to say “. . . it is in both our countries’ interests for the relationship to be stabilised.”
But what does “stabilised” mean? China can be forgiven for thinking that what Australia wants is to stabilise its highly profitable trade with China, while continuing to be fiercely critical of Chinese policies at home and abroad, and to support US actions and pronouncements, however provocative Beijing may consider them.
One sentence in Penny Wong’s opening remarks at the meeting with Wang Yi gives the game away: “Australia’s Government has changed but our national interests and our policy settings have not.” It is precisely these policy settings which became the trademark of Liberal governments and provoked China’s ire, eventually prompting a suite of sanctions targeting Australian beef, wine, barley, and coal exports.
If the policy settings remain the same, it is because the Labor government has still to distance itself from the politically contrived anti-China hysteria which has swept the corridors of influence in Washington and increasingly in Canberra.
Not surprisingly, both Albanese and Wong made it clear before and since the May election that they took great exception to the China-Solomons Security Pact. The Labor opposition was critical of the Morrison government for being caught off guard and not acting in timely fashion to forestall the signing of such an agreement.
The widely held view within Australia’s security circles was that the agreement would in time pave the way for a Chinese military base less than 2,000 km from Australia’s coastline. Mainstream media, not noted for their expertise on China, assumed a sombre tone: ‘Australia’s gravest fears were about to be realised’.
Repeated assurances by Prime Minister Sogavare that the Solomons had no intention of allowing a Chinese naval base seemed to carry no weight. Explanations offered by both China and Sogovare that the agreement was intended to foster social stability in the Solomons appeared to fall on deaf ears.
The subsequent tour by Wang Yi of eight Pacific Islands became further grist to the anti-China mill. Apart from concluding bilateral agreements with each of the countries he visited, Wang Yi proposed a multilateral economic and security agreement known as the “China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision”. His meeting with the foreign ministers of the ten Pacific Island countries that recognise China rather than Taiwan declined to support the agreement, at least in its present form. But none of this was enough to placate the ‘frenzy of concern’.
Since being sworn in as foreign minister, Penny Wong has made four trips to the Pacific. This whirlwind of diplomacy supported by additional promises of development and security aid is ostensibly meant to repair Australia’s long neglected relationship with the Pacific. The underlying and unconcealed purpose is to secure a regional framework able to contain the “dangers of Chinese expansion”.
The threat posed by China now pervaded every facet of Australia’s foreign and security policy. A clear indication of this was Prime Minister Albanese’s decision to attend four international summits in his first seven weeks in office.
The first of these was the QUAD Leaders’ meeting in Japan. Predictably the communiqué issued at the end of the meeting pointedly called for a maritime rules-based order – codeword for continuing US military supremacy – that would include the East and South China Seas. Without referring to China by name, the statement pointed to China’s numerous sins, notably “the militarisation of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation activities.”
A few weeks later, Albanese joined NATO leaders in Madrid for what was billed as “the most important summit in generations”. For the first time in its history, it was attended by leaders of four key US allies in the Asia-Pacific region: Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. The message was clear. Though the summit would direct most of its venom against Russia, China would not be spared.
The declaration issued by member states explicitly accused China of challenging NATO’s “interests, security, and values” and seeking “to undermine the rules-based international order.” But there was more to come.
The denunciation of China assumed vitriolic proportions in the much heralded NATO Strategic Concept adopted at the summit. It merits quoting at length:
The PRC’s malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation target Allies and harm Alliance security. The PRC seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains. It uses its economic leverage to create strategic dependencies and enhance its influence. It strives to subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains. The deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.
Comments made by Albanese before and during the summit left little doubt that he concurred with the letter and spirit of these admonitions. To dispel any doubts, he launched a diatribe against China for its failure to condemn Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, drew a parallel between Ukraine and Taiwan and invited China to learn from Russia’s “strategic failure”. He went on to commit Australia’s participation in NATO exercises later in the year.
China’s response was swift and direct. The parallel between Ukraine and Taiwan was vehemently rejected. The Chinese Foreign Ministry accused Albanese of gross ignorance with regard to China’s stance on the Ukraine Crisis and Taiwan’s status. “Taiwan”, it emphatically asserted, “is not a sovereign country.”
The China Daily’s assessment was brutally frank:
From deliberately playing up and smearing China’s normal security cooperation with the Solomon Islands to eagerly jumping on the US bandwagon drumming up support for its containment policy against China, the current Australian government has displayed no signs of changing the course set by its predecessor.
This latest unfortunate episode raises unavoidable questions: When it comes to China, does the Labor government have any intention to distance itself from the dictates of current US policy and strategic rhetoric? Will it continue to despatch Australian warships and aircraft to the contested waters of the South China Sea and East China Sea? Recent incidents suggest that increased military activity of this kind heightens the risk of military confrontation, whether by accident or miscalculation.
It is difficult to see why Australia should entertain such risks, not least the prospect of a indefinite freeze in its relations with China. And this, simply to give credence to a threat scenario whose main objective, at best elusive and ultimately unattainable, is to ensure America’s regional and global dominance.
There is little evidence to support the claim that China is intent on using military force against its neighbours. Taiwan is a possible exception, but even here such a military thrust is unlikely to occur unless Taiwan foolishly moves towards a unilateral declaration of independence.
The fact remains that, despite its remarkable economic growth and a rising defence budget, China’s capacity to project military muscle pales in comparison with America’s global military reach.
The possibility, however distant, that the Chinese navy may gain access to one or more port or basing facilities in the Indio-Pacific region, routinely raises eyebrows and provokes deep consternation in government and media circles. The fact that the United States, thirty years after the end of the Cold War, still has well over 700 bases in at least 70 countries is accepted as normal, and in keeping with an international rules based order.
The same holds for China’s efforts to establish links with Australian institutions and political, business and community leaders. These are viewed with suspicion verging on hysteria. By contrast, the longstanding networks of influence which the United States, Britain or Israel have developed across Australia’s political, military and intelligence landscape are viewed with equanimity.
The carefully orchestrated threat scenarios that currently underpin Australia’s China policy offer few benefits. They simply feed on public fears, fan the flames of militarist discourse and policy-making, and heighten tensions in already troubled waters.
A rethink is more urgent than ever. It is unlikely to be facilitated, let alone initiated, by our moribund political parties or blinkered mainstream media. For now, only civil society, in its diverse expressions, can stimulate the mature public conversation we need to have.