US leading Australia on China

Nov 6, 2020

Many of our political and thought leaders in Australia seem in the past couple of years to have followed the US into a mindset that de facto China is the enemy.  It seems a very uncomfortable position for Australia, given our massive economic reliance on China and the large Chinese diaspora in Australia.

China takes nearly $12 billion of our exports of goods and services, making up well over a third of our total exports.  Our next biggest customer is Japan with just over $3 billion.  The US comes in fourth, with a bit over $1.5 billion.  The bottom line is that China is massively important to Australia’s economic wellbeing.

For most of the time since 1972 when Gough Whitlam was a pioneer amongst Western leaders in opening up relations with China, the diplomatic and trade relationships between the two countries have been very good, despite our very different political systems and cultures.  But that very good relationship has quickly changed.

Historians speak of Europe sleep walking into the First World War – joined there by that most willing participant in nearly any military stoush – Australia.  Are we doing the same now?  A mindset that conflict is inevitable is a great way to end up in fight.

Critics of China, led by the US and organisations such as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and those behind the recent Foreign Interference McCarthyism, are ever ready to use electrically amplified megaphones at full volume to call out China over every crime, real and perceived – Hong Kong, pressure on Taiwan, the Uyghurs, Tibet, extensive community surveillance, the origins of Covid 19, expansionism in the South China Sea, organ harvesting, tensions on the Indian border, military build-up, theft of intellectual property, currency manipulation, breach of WTO rules, a less than transparent court system.  What positive outcomes are likely to result from the barrage of criticisms?

China has the world’s second biggest economy and it is very quickly overtaking the US.  Some say 2024 will be the year.  It already has the world’s biggest navy.  So we do not want to get into a fight with China.  I judge that, fortunately, China is not looking for a fight that we need to be in.  Except perhaps with Taiwan, it is not looking for a fight over any territory which is not already universally acknowledged as being a part of China.  China wants to solidify its place as a major economic and military power – as one of two initially and probably very quickly as the world’s major power.

It seems to be accepted that China’s leaders smart greatly at the fact that, for very close to a century, China has – in their eyes – been humiliated by the West and by Japan.  We need at least privately to acknowledge that deep sore.  That really should not be so difficult.  We should miss no opportunity generously to marvel at the truly marvelous achievements of China – both historically and in modern times.

The concerns which China has about the South China Sea and its near neighbours – including Taiwan – are understandable.  Remember the Cuban missile crisis.  The US is not nearly so encircled by potentially antagonistic and reasonably powerful countries as China is.  The US is not so dependent on access to resources via one lot of highly congested and contested sea-lanes as China is.  For many decades, the US has interfered in the political affairs of neighbours (and many quite remote countries) which showed any leftist tendencies.

Even Australia has responded less than diplomatically to prevent perceived threats coming from our northern neighbours – think of the Domino theory and our military involvement in Vietnam, our nodding and winking to Indonesia over Timor Leste lest it became our Cuba, and Confrontation with Indonesia in Malaysia.  Countries get nervous about their neighbours.

There are very real cultural and political differences between Australia and China.  But presumably our diplomats and even our political leaders can find, and learn to use, the dials and knobs which modulate the volume, timing and tone of political and diplomatic discussions without China.

Without descending to appeasement, we need to be sympathetic to China and to act as a friend, not as an enemy.  That won’t necessarily be easy, but it is very important.

We have done these things before.  Our relations with Indonesia and various other countries in Asia are marked by cultural and political differences, but we have managed generally to keep relations on track.

Even our close allies do things domestically which are unpalatable to most Australian.   But we don’t go out of our way to make them major issues in the relationship.  For example, with the US – the response to Covid, the gun culture and mass shootings, police killings, lynchings in earlier times, racial injustices, the suppression of voting by minorities, appalling disparities in wealth, the exclusion of millions of people from proper heath care, and high levels of poverty.  We don’t berate the US about these things. Even Donald Trump’s dangerously subversive words after this month’s election have drawn only the most muted response from the Australian Government.

Aon the international front, since the Second World War the US has frequently used its military might to get its way.  It has overthrown governments.  It has spied on the world.  The US would have been declared a rogue state but for its immense military and diplomatic power – drone killings, kidnappings across the globe, black sites, CIA participation in the illegal drug trade, Guantanamo, torture, boycotting of the International Criminal Court, conducting wars unsanctioned by international law, withdrawal from the existentially critical response to climate change.  So far from decrying the US, Australia has been complicit in a number of them.  We have been very muted in our criticisms even when we have not been complicit.

The US has flexed its considerable muscle to impose its laws to people across the globe, regardless of territoriality. For example, the extradition of Julian Assange to the US from the UK is not based on any actions that Assange is alleged to have committed in the US.  The US has been able to get away with enforcing these long arm statutes because of its global power.  The story for 75 years has been that, if the US ain’t happy, then nobody is happy.

Well, China is in that club too now.  We need, for example, to find ways to alleviate China’s concerns about the vulnerability of its trade routes.  Maybe Australia can play a constructive role there.

Critics will object that we can’t just turn a blind eye to what is happening in China with the Uyghurs, Tibet and organ harvesting. We can’t appease China if it attacks Taiwan.

We do and have largely turned a blind eye to what we regard as serious human rights abuses by other countries, including Indonesia.  Australia was the only country to recognize Indonesia as having sovereignty over Timor-Leste after its invasion.  Of course, Australia’s own human rights record is not unblemished

Much more consistently than we have, we should advocate for human rights. But we should be slow to jeopardise our important international relationships by loudly and indiscriminately insulting countries which are important to our future, especially countries where the relationship is delicate.




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