MARK BEESON: Agents of influence

Dec 18, 2017

A form of groupthink about relations with China and the United States has become pervasive in Canberra. Ironically, this situation is encouraged by the influence of the US, despite the current hysteria surrounding relations with the PRC.

Some of my best friends are Chinese. These days I spend quite a bit of time in the People’s Republic. Next year I plan to spend a few months at leading universities in Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai. Some of my expenses are likely to be picked up by my hosts. Clearly, I’m hopelessly compromised and not capable of taking an objective view of our most contentious bilateral relationship, right?

Perhaps so. But without wanting to get into a rather arcane philosophical debate about the possibility of being objective about anything, it’s worth asking a simple question: would anyone be similarly concerned if I was off to the US on a Fulbright Fellowship? Hardly – even in the unlikely event that someone like me actually got one.

It is simply of a matter of fact that completely different standards and attitudes apply to our relationships with the US and China. There’s nothing surprising or even necessarily wrong about this given our history, political traditions and congenital sense of insecurity. But it’s worth keeping in mind when thinking about the nature of ‘our’ foreign and strategic policies and the way they are perceived elsewhere.

The scare quotes are merited because in reality ‘our’ policy positions are actually developed by a handful of people in Canberra who claim to speak on behalf of the nation. The limited numbers of outsiders who have some influence over policy also tend congregate in Canberra and operate in its clubby, insular policy environment.

Even alleged ‘radicals’ succumb to its influence. It is striking that the likes of Paul Keating and Bob Carr offered little public criticism of the conventional wisdom about the importance of the alliance with the US, for example, while they were actually in a position to do something about it.

The suggestion that Carr has changed his tune because his Australia-China Relations Institute has received funding from one of the bourgeoning ranks of Chinese billionaires misses a more fundamental point: the policy-making establishment seems quite incapable of escaping a rather stultifying group think while actually in office.

This is not to say that outside forces aren’t trying to influence the policymaking process. Of course they are. That’s what governments do; so does ours. What distinguishes the efforts of some governments is that they are actually welcomed and encouraged, while some are seen as subverting the national interest and compromising the security of the nation.

When John Howard established the United States Studies Centre in 2006, for example, there is little doubt that its primary role was to rehabilitate a relationship that had been badly damaged by the presidency of George W. Bush and Australia’s subsequent – entirely predictable – participation in the war in Iraq. Yet there was remarkably little opposition to, or debate about, spending public money in a partisan effort to bolster the soft power of a foreign government.

As Carr has recently pointed out, not much has changed in this regard: the Australian Policy Institute under the leadership of its omnipresent director, Peter Jennings, is another influential think-tank that promulgates a consistently ‘one-sided, pro-American view of the world.’

As John Menadue has pointed out, ASPI has become a ‘active participant in the political debate’.

The uncritical groupthink that underpins the Canberra consensus has important consequences. Most importantly, perhaps, as Hugh White’s recent timely analysis of Australia’s geopolitical context and options has pointed out, is the complete failure to acknowledge that ‘we are, most probably, soon going to find ourselves in an Asia dominated by China, where America plays little or no strategic role at all.’

It is not simply the fact that the Trump administration is an erratic and unreliable strategic partner that makes Australia’s current policy settings so dispiriting, but that there has been so little debate about possible alternatives. It seems literally unthinkable for many in Canberra to consider a world in which the US is not ascendant or the foundation of our national security. Without independent thought that is unlikely to change. It is consequently equally unlikely  that Australia will develop an independent foreign policy.

The idea that we might treat all foreign powers rather more even-handedly will strike some observers – especially in Canberra – as strategically illiterate at best, downright treasonous at worst. Why we should feel relaxed and comfortable about any other country having a privileged position in ‘our’ national policy debate is a moot point that is itself worthy of discussion.

But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’ve clearly been nobbled and/or beguiled by the untrustworthy, undemocratic Chinese. Maybe. But being sympathetic doesn’t mean being blind either. There is much to be concerned about in the growing political repression and centralization of power in China.

But there’s arguably even more to be concerned about in Trump’s America. At least we won’t have to fight on China’s behalf in yet another war in which we have no direct strategic stake. Being able to view all of our key bilateral relationships a little more critically and dispassionately has got to be in the proverbial ‘national interest’, hasn’t it?

Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia. Before joining UWA, he taught at Murdoch, Griffith, Queensland, York (UK) and Birmingham, where he was also head of department.




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