How did it come to this? How did Australia’s foreign policymakers and their advisors manage to devise policies that have simultaneously enraged our most important trade partner, and made us even more dependent on an increasingly unpredictable notional guarantor of our national security? If our political and strategic elites had intentionally set out to undermine Australia’s economic security and exacerbate existing strategic vulnerabilities they could hardly have done a better job.
While these failures have been a long-time in the making, recent decisions and policy settings have thrown them into sharp and unflattering relief. I think we all know that Australia has had a problematic and uncertain relationship with ‘Asia’ from its inception; a sentiment that clearly lingers on in the minds of some powerful people in Canberra. Even more troublingly, the idea that Australia cannot survive on its own as a genuinely independent nation has become more even entrenched, despite the decline of inter-state war and one of the world’s most fortunate geographic locations.
It all takes some explaining. Max Suich does precisely that in a very important and illuminating series of recent articles in the Australian Financial Review on 16, 17 and 18 May. Apart from the fact that Suich is an Asia hand and journalist of some distinction, he has a network of contacts that have allowed him to develop a credible explanation of one of the greatest examples of diplomatic self-harm in Australia’s short but perennially anxious history.
At the centre of the policy failures, Suich argues, was a failure to “define a policy objective for the new relationship with China or a strategy to achieve it”. Given China’s overwhelming economic importance to Australia, this is quite an oversight, but one that is primarily explicable by a government that believes there were potential “domestic political advantages of a China threat narrative”.
To be fair, for nearly 100 years, every Australian government has struggled to decide whether Asia represented more of a threat or an opportunity. What sets the Morrison government apart is that it has decided that China is unambiguously a threat to both Australia and the fabled “rules-based international order” that was engineered, but often studiously ignored, by the United States.
Did Australia actually need to “get out in front on China”? Not according to Suich. On the contrary, there was little to be gained—other than the passing approbation of the Americans—and much to be lost. China demonstrated a willingness to use its growing geoeconomic leverage to punish Australian producers and businesses who, Suich claims, were “publicly described as ‘difficult’, privately as corrupted by China and disloyal”.
It is not just the striking contrast between “China Inc” and Australia’s “uncoordinated” policies that is noteworthy here. As Suich points out, the message to China, whether intentional or not, was that “the US alliance would be explicitly valued at a price we would have to accept – trade retribution and hostility from China.” The cost so far in economic terms is $20 billion and counting.
While this unnecessary and pointless self-inflicted economic damage is bad enough, things are arguably worse in the strategic arena. Given that the proverbial bottom line turns out to be strategic rather than economic, this is an even more withering indictment of Australian policy under the Morrison government in particular.
Australia has, as our notional protectors might say, doubled down on the alliance. Rather than trying to craft an independent position as a middle power and non-aggressive trading state, Australian policymakers continue to pursue geopolitical business as usual. The result is all too predictable: “Not since the Pacific war has Australia been so completely in the hands of Washington.” More to the point, Suich adds, “our current reassurances from the US, while firm, cannot be other than short term”.
In other words, not only is there absolutely no guarantee that the US would come to our aid in the extremely unlikely event that we would ever need it, but we risk being sucked into a conflict between the US and China in the meantime. History—and the increasingly bellicose rhetoric of senior policymakers in Canberra—suggests there is no doubt that Australia would act as it has always done, and fight on behalf of a foreign power in the hope that they would look favourably on us as a consequence.
Apart from the fact that it’s impossible to imagine what “winning” a war between the US and China would actually look like, or what cataclysmic consequences it would have for the world generally and Australia in particular if it occurred, it’s worth thinking about what this says about us a country. Are we really contemplating—yet again—taking part in, and even facilitating, an utterly pointless conflict, which does not directly impinge on Australia’s security?
Rather depressingly, the answer to this question is almost certainly ‘yes’. Canberra’s hard-headed realists will no doubt say we have no choice when the security of the nation is at stake. But it’s not. Moreover, it’s hard to know how risking an apocalyptic nuclear conflict furthers the proposition about the importance of security.
Suich’s suggestion that the calculus of “domestic political advantage is driving national security policy” looks alarmingly credible. Some aspects of Australia’s China policy are the product of the sort of unsophisticated, unimaginative and short-term calculus that distinguishes other key areas of public policy, such as climate change. At least we have people in Australia who can explain why, even if their views cannot compete with influential vested interests and a world view that is more apt for the nineteenth century than the twenty-first.