The Wily Occidentals

Oct 17, 2023
Aukus is a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Relations between AUKUS and China.

Can Australia reconcile the American and Chinese strands of its foreign policy?

Soon the Prime Minister will be meeting the heads of government of the two contending great powers of the Asia-Pacific: China and the United States. What will the background be?

Many years ago, when the Timor crisis was at its height, I felt sympathy for Indonesians trying to establish what our policy on Timor actually was, since it changed markedly depending on who was expounding it, Prime Minister Whitlam or Foreign Minister Willesee. I thought that it wasn’t a case of “Wily Orientals” but of “Wily Occidentals”.

Perhaps we are just naturally duplicitous, because we are doing it again as between the United States and China. The recently-held Australia-China High Level Dialogue in Beijing, led on the Australian side in a bi-partisan way by former senior Ministers Craig Emerson and Julie Bishop, according to media reports was the occasion for optimism and good feeling from both sides, as reported from the Chinese side by the often acerbic “Global Times”. At about the same time our Prime Minister announced that he would visit China later in the year, taking up an invitation extended by President Xi. Since then, just a few days ago, the Chinese Government did its bit to create a good atmosphere for the visit, with the release of detained Chinese-Australian journalist, Cheng Lei.

These actions and intentions, together with the recent removal of some of China’s restrictions on imports from Australia, and a proposal from it for a further “package deal”, would seem to amount to quite a positive approach both by us and by our largest trading partner, a very major Asia-Pacific power.

But this approach by us follows a spate of declarations and announcements in support of a quite different foreign policy approach, namely ever closer support for US Pacific policy, directed against what it often has described as an “increasingly aggressive” China. (See my July article, “The US in Australia” Although we are more circumspect in what we say about China (and Taiwan), we have readily joined in descriptions of the strategic circumstances in the Asia-Pacific as “the most dangerous for decades”.

In line with those descriptions, and the very broad provisions of our Force Posture Agreement with the US, we have embarked on a series of defence actions and acquisitions—most notably the nuclear-powered submarines to be acquired under AUKUS in various ways, but also equipment pre-positioning and missile manufacture—that seem more appropriate to supporting a US war against China than the defence of Australia. Labor Ministers have even called the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines a “core plank” of Labor Policy! The US has matched China in inviting our Prime Minister to visit later in the year.

So how do we reconcile these two markedly different, even directly opposed, strands in our foreign policy posture? We seem to proceed by simply somewhat moderating our language and refusing to admit that there is a problem. These are just different things we do, in our pursuit of a “peaceful, stable and prosperous region in which sovereignty is respected”, to quote Foreign Minister Wong.

What about the US and China? How do they regard our dealings with the other? Both countries are of course enormously well-staffed and experienced, and neither would be under any illusions about our relations with the other—primarily defence and strategic, in the case of the United States, and primarily economic, in the case of China. The US would have been pleased with recent developments extending its actual or potential use of Australian territory, in the context of strengthening its strategic position in the Pacific. And at a time when global economic “decoupling” is talked about, China welcomes the fact that we want to remain a major supplier to them of basic minerals like coal and iron, as well as of “newer” minerals like lithium. As the Chinese Consul General in Brisbane said in an interview with “The Australian” of September 1, “our trade, economy, education, even tourism—you guys have something really good to offer and China really needs it”.

Both the US and China have senior and experienced Ambassadors in Canberra. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy would certainly have had plenty of favourable things to report in regard to particular developments and the state of political and public opinion in regard to the US. Ambassador Xiao Qian would also have been able to report to his government that, despite Australia’s close and unquestioned links to the US, a significant and bipartisan appreciation of the importance of the bilateral relationship has developed in the country since the establishment of diplomatic relations; he would have advised that there was no reason for China to “give up” on Australia.

If that is how the US and China probably see their relations with us, how do we see the situation? Is our “no problem to see here” stance what we really think? What do we think will happen if/when we finally get all the awesome capacities contemplated under AUKUS? Do we doubt that that will ever happen? And if so, do we care?

Two recent comments in our media show that some well-informed Australian commentators harbour doubts. In the “Financial Review” of 20 September Michael Shoebridge, Director of Strategic Analysis Australia, noted that “none of the three (AUKUS) partners has yet had to do anything hard to make (AUKUS) a reality”, and that for Australia there are hard choices—such as the sites for a nuclear waste repository and an east coast base for the nuclear submarines—that will have to be made.

On 19 September, in “The Australian”, Greg Sheridan, who is very concerned to see Australia’s defences strengthened, made some highly critical comments about Government policies. He concluded that despite the stirring words about AUKUS, the Government “has decided to spend no extra money (on defence). And it has also decided to make no effort to increase military capability over the next 10 years”. AUKUS, he says, is “only important because it has become a central part of the symbolism of our alliance with the US”. He says that “nothing much is happening about AUKUS in the physical universe”, and concludes that “the Albanese government’s political calculation seems to be that the symbolism of the AUKUS subs means the public thinks the government is big on defence, therefore it doesn’t need to actually do anything else”.

There are problems and qualms about the subs on the US side too. Hopes for a re-vamp of US defence technology export regulations can get nowhere given the current state of affairs in the Congress. And the US program for building nuclear submarines for its own Navy’s use is far behind schedule, casting a doubt over the projected initial step in the plan for our Navy to acquire them by buying a small number from the US.

There really is little doubt that the nuclear submarine program as envisaged in AUKUS represents a huge task for Australia. We have no nuclear industry, and very little nuclear capacity and expertise. The costs involved are enormous, and our skilled manpower resources are very limited.

Perhaps, then, the Chinese Government has made a similar assessment of the difficulties facing the program, has been persuaded by Greg Sheridan’s arguments, and therefore does not see AUKUS as an immediate threat to itself or its interests. Maybe the answer to the question of how we reconcile the American and Chinese strands of our foreign policy—our “grand strategy”—is that we simply assert that we can do so, noting that the time-lines involved with each are very different. With China it’s a case of the here and now—sorting out current trade and other difficulties, and getting on with mutually profitable economic and people-to-people relationships. With the US it’s more a question of hoping that AUKUS works, and that if it doesn’t there are some kind of arrangements in hand to cover unwelcome contingencies that might arise.

And of course they might not. On 12 October the “South China Morning Post” reported US Ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, speaking after what turned out to be a series of very high-level American visits to China, as saying that “We (the US and China) have got to find a way to live together. It’s insanity to think we want this relationship to descend into conflict or a war”.

To which the appropriate response is “and so say all of us”.

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