WALTER HAMILTON. The Sideline is Out of Play

Jan 5, 2017

‘Taking sides’ is a schoolyard conception of how a nation’s strategic interest is to be calculated and diplomacy shaped. Standing on the sidelines of a fight, pointing an accusing finger at other barracking spectators and crying ‘you’re taking sides’ is merely a way of avoiding the more challenging task of assessing the rights and wrongs of an issue and how it might, sooner or later, directly involve others.  This is a repost from 20 September 2016.

Discussions about Australia’s response to diplomatic and territorial disputes involving China tend, unfortunately, to be reduced to the formula of ‘taking sides’. Australia, we are told, should not (or need not) take sides when the competing interests of the United States and China collide. We are also better off not ‘taking sides’, so the same argument goes, when Japan and China are at loggerheads.

The common denominator in these discussions is China. I cannot remember the ‘taking sides’ formula having such currency in strategic discussions since the end of the Cold War. When it was a choice between ‘the West’ and ‘the East’, back then, the vast majority of Australians, with good reason I would say, were convinced their nation’s interest was best served by choosing to align with like-minded states.

In a sense, it was an easier choice. The Soviet Union, though actively involved in proxy wars in Indochina, seemed comparatively remote from Australia’s Pacific zone of interest. And the postwar ascendency of the United States had not yet come under doubt. China’s presence in and around Australia now, however, is a vastly different thing. And as its influence grows, so America’s seems to diminish (another false dichotomy often found in these discussions).

The ‘don’t take sides’ argument relies on the assumption that the two Pacific powers with apparently the most to lose from the rise of China––the United States and Japan––are looking for partner states to help ‘contain’ China. It assumes that every dispute involving China is about containment (whatever that means) and by ‘taking sides’ Australia would be making a fatal choice.

The more I reflect on this proposition, the more facile it seems. Some who warn against ‘taking sides’ consider it a bad idea because they believe a containment strategy cannot succeed and Australia will find itself on the losing side. Others, while offering no opinion on the efficacy of containment, are simply wary of upsetting China and damaging the bilateral (read ‘economic’) relationship. What ‘containment’ might actually mean in all of this is left for others to guess.

The first point to make is that the interests of China today are ­not generally opposed to the interests of the United States or Japan. One can point to a whole range of common interests, from economic growth to combatting terrorism. Where conflicts do exist, they relate to specific issues with their own particular antecedents and circumstances, involving specific principles and strategic considerations. To generalise from one issue to another or extrapolate from one dispute to the relationship as a whole is neither clever nor helpful; it is the sort of sloppy thinking better suited to nationalistic bombast.

Taking a specific case––the territorial dispute in the South China Sea––there are four major heads of discussion: the various claims by several nations to the disputed atolls and islands; the unilateral actions by China to alter the status of the territories through dredging and reclamation, construction of airstrips and placement of military logistics; the application of international law to the situation; and the exercise of Freedom of Navigation through the disputed area.

China’s position on these points is: (1) it does not recognise any other claims to the disputed territories; (2) it has complete license to act as it sees fit in the South China Sea; (3) international law does not apply where its territorial interests are concerned; and (4) the exercise of Freedom of Navigation by other states in the area shall be regarded as a provocative act.

China has set these terms for other states to accept, without discussion; if they challenge them, they should know they do so at their own risk. It has gone further. The Chinese Embassy in Canberra has mobilised Chinese students and others living in Australia to engage in street protests against the Australian Government’s insistence on the application of international law in the South China Sea. (Imagine if the Japanese Government organised its nationals in Australia to march against our anti-whaling policy!)

As I said before, the common denominator in these quarrels is China. In the East China Sea, too, Chinese coast guard and naval deployments and the bellicose rhetoric of media close to the Chinese Communist Party have fueled tensions over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Japan has not always acted sensibly, but the rights and wrongs of this issue are too often conflated with the separate issue of war remembrance. I have written in this blog on a number of occasions about the failure of some Japanese to come to terms with the past, but I would never suggest that that overrides the need for the East China Sea dispute to be resolved through rule of law––not belligerency and unilateral attempts to change the status quo.

China is not an open and accountable democratic state. Chinese investment in Australia, as we have seen lately, is tainted by political influence buying and obscured by hidden lines of ownership and control. Murky state-owned enterprises beholden to the Communist Party are eager to play in foreign markets like ours, where a transparent system of commercial law protects investors, while foreign entitles doing business in China are daily exposed to extralegal penalties and confiscations. In material terms, China has come a long way since Deng Xiaoping proclaimed the Four Modernisations; what persists, however, is a society under one- party rule, without freedoms of speech and assembly or judicial independence. Under President Xi Jinping, in some respects, conditions have deteriorated. Unlike Deng, it is very hard to know what the phlegmatic Xi wants or stands for.

China’s patriotic press would insist I have no right to comment on China’s domestic affairs. How dare we ‘sons of convicts’ express an opinion, one commentator demanded to know recently. But I doubt many Australians would accept the idea that China alone should set the terms by which it is to be judged, particularly when it concerns its conduct in or towards other states. Australians would expect our nation’s representatives to resist any form of unilateralism in matters subject to international law such as Freedom of Navigation and territorial disputes or any direct interference in sovereign matters including foreign investment, political donations and foreign and defence policy.

It is not a question of taking sides in disputes between other states. It is a question of deciding what constitutes Australia’s own interest. And that complex consideration must not be reduced to dollars and cents or facile analytic formulas, for comfort sake. What should govern our actions is a firm adherence to the principles that reflect our values, secure our democratic institutions and guarantee our freedoms. Trade, investment and diplomacy must never be indifferent to these principles, lest they put our national interest at risk.

Walter Hamilton reported from Asia for the ABC in the 1980s and 1990s.


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