MARK BEESON: When worlds collide: The unlikely relationship between Australia and China

Dec 6, 2017

The debate about Australia’s relationship with China is characterized by a degree of mutual incomprehension born of difference. Both sides share some of the blame for the current bilateral tensions.

John Howard once suggested that when it comes to foreign and strategic policy, it’s not necessary to choose between geography and history. In essence, Howard’s argument was that just because Australia is geographically adjacent to Asia and a long way from the US and Britain, this shouldn’t dictate who our friends and strategic partners are.

But even those who were unenthusiastic about ‘Asian engagement’ of the sort promoted by another former prime minister – Paul Keating – realized that Australia had little option other than to make the best of the opportunities that the region potentially offered.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest long-term transformation in Australia’s external relations has been the change in perceptions – especially at the elite, policymaking level –  about its immediate neighborhood. Where once ‘Asia’ was seen as a largely unknown, alien source of danger and insecurity, it is now increasingly seen as the foundation of Australia’s future prosperity.

Having said that, it is also clear that those earlier fears about the Asian region have not entirely dissipated, even at the elite level. On the contrary, the ‘rise of China’ in particular and its growing impact on the region generally means that Australia in particular must deal with enduring differences and the difficult choices that a changing external environment can still generate.

China is still notionally a ‘communist’ power, even if it’s arguably not one that an earlier generation of communist leaders might recognize. On the contrary, China is but the latest example of a highly effective, state-led form of capitalist development, albeit with very distinctive Chinese characteristics.

It is also one that shows little sign of becoming more like the formerly dominant Western model of economic and political development. China’s economic elites are not pushing for political liberalism in the way many in the West expected.  On the contrary, China’s expanding capitalist class is seemingly very happy to work closely with a powerful state that has indeed become the organizing committee of the bourgeoisie, although not quite in the way Marx might have imagined.

Such developments are causing a good deal of angst in Canberra and Washington. Not only is China showing little sign of ‘converging’ on a supposedly superior Western template of governance, but it is displaying some of the behaviors and ambitions that realist scholars in Australia, the US and China might lead us to expect.

Indeed, there is a self-fulling quality to much of the thinking about international political and strategic behavior, especially in Canberra. If national leaders think the worst of their neighbors and make policy decisions on that basis, particular ideas and discourses about the nature of security threats and the sorts of responses they generate become inevitable. This applies to Australia and to China, of course.

Whatever Chinese people may think about China’s foreign policy – and there is a remarkable uniformity of opinion about, and support for, China’s actions in China– the way outsiders think about such policies has consequences, too. Whatever the historical merits and contemporary legal basis of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, for example, there is little doubt that it has unsettled and alarmed many of its neighbors.

Australia is no exception in this regard. On the contrary, there is a growing drumbeat of alarm about the possible strategic implications of China’s growing regional presence. Indeed, one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement in Canberra is about the importance of defense preparedness in a rapidly changing and uncertain world.

There are a number of points that merit emphasizing about this process. First, this bipartisan support is not only a very tangible expression of strategic groupthink in Canberra, but it reveals itself in an equally predictable way: Australia, like China, is embarking on a major process of force modernization that is centered primarily on the acquisition of new submarines and fighter planes.

The second point to make about this new military hardware is that it is hugely expensive, and yet it has been subject to remarkably little debate about the strategic rationale that underpins it or the efficacy of the weapons systems themselves. This is despite the fact that many informed observers think the submarines will be out of date before they are complete, and the planes may never overcome some of the technical problems that have plagued them from the outset.

The third point to make about regional arms races is that we know how they end – usually in an ocean of tears. The best-case scenario is that we never get to use all our new guns and bombs and they are simply a colossal waste of money. Worst case scenario, we do get to use them and reduce the region, if not the world, to a smoldering ruin.

Of course, the hard heads in Canberra will argue that if we don’t use them that’s because they’ve done their job: they have successfully deterred some hostile power or other. But does anyone think that even if Australia spent 5% of GDP on armaments and had 50 new submarines this would cause China to behave any differently?

There are two points to make about this, too. First, given the support for China’s foreign policies and the widespread national desire for China to reassume its position as a great regional and world power, it is unlikely that the direction of travel in China’s external posture will change. It is doubtful whether the US can curb China’s ambitions; it is certain Australia can’t.

The second point is that Australia’s principal motivation for this extravagant defense spending is to shore up its alliance relationship with the US. Critics in China may be right to suggest that Australia is a ‘paper cat’ and an American lackey, but this reality is very unlikely to change while ever Australian strategic thinkers and policymakers feel nervous and insecure about the future of the region.

Despite a belated but welcome debate about the possible merits of a more independent foreign policy in Australia, neither of the major parties has shown any real appetite for a change of course from the familiar, supposedly ‘responsible’ and ‘serious’ approach to strategic policy. Malcolm Turnbull’s unseemly rush to ingratiate himself with Trump is the recent prime example of the impact of Australia’s traditional attitude to alliance politics.

What does all this mean for relations between Australia and China? First, no matter what the US does and no matter who runs American foreign policy, it seems nothing will undermine support for the alliance in Australia. It is important to recognize that China’s regional policy is making this outcome even more likely – even with a president like Trump.

Second, for people like me who think we actually spend too much on the military, it is becoming ever more difficult to be heard, never mind taken seriously. The ‘debate’, such as it is in Australia, is remarkably uniform at the best of times; it is even more so at present when there is an obsession with national security. Even those like Hugh White and the late Malcolm Fraser who advocate a rethink of strategic policy also advocate increased defense spending at the same time.

The possibility that such spending is a futile effort to achieve an illusory form of security – which ultimately can make no material difference to any conflict in the region – is not taken seriously. Yet the reality is that China and the US will determine the regional security environment and there is little Australia can do about this one way or the other. Indeed, whether or not the US retains a direct strategic presence in the region will be determined entirely by American priorities and interests, not by anything Australia says or does.

It is not unreasonable to suppose that many in China would not be unhappy to see Australia and the US become more distant. This is not necessarily a reason for doing so, of course. But from a Chinese perspective it is important to recognize that this is unlikely to happen while Australian policymakers are preoccupied with the supposedly negative consequences of China’s rise. Even an apparently unambiguous economic boon for the region – OBOR – is viewed with great suspicion by many in Canberra.

While Australia might matter much less to China than vice versa, both countries have much to gain from getting the relationship right – no matter how unlikely and instrumental it may be at times. Howard may have been right to suggest that geography isn’t destiny, but that’s not to say it doesn’t matter either.

Facing up to this reality may be a bigger challenge for Australian policymakers than it is for their Chinese counterparts. Either way, Australians had better get used to and make the most of a region that is increasingly dominated by China. If there’s one thing the realists are right about, it’s about the smaller power having to do the adjusting.

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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