Australia needs to engage China and hedge the risks of this relationship

Australia needs to engage China and hedge the risks of this relationship, by Alan Dupont.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is reported to have dismissed Australia “as not a real country”.

Many of our Asian neighbours still regard Australian foreign policy as subservient to Washington’s, a position echoed by domestic critics such as Paul Keating, who castigates the government for ceding foreign policy to the US.

However, the looming challenge to Australia’s independence is not the US but China. This reality seems to have escaped critics of our relationship with the US and ­advocates of ever-closer ties with China. The China challenge is not about having to choose between China and the US. It is about how much independence Australia will be permitted in a Chinese-dominated regional order led by the formidable Xi Jinping …

The problem for Australia is that China’s willingness to use ­coercion to achieve its dream of ­renewed greatness is becoming a defining feature of its foreign policy.

With the US in self-declared retreat from its global leadership role and lacking a coherent Asia policy under Donald Trump, there are diminishing external constraints on Chinese behaviour and ambitions. …

South China Sea

Xi’s willingness to export a Chinese model of development touting the virtues of authoritarianism is a direct challenge to Australia and the dwindling band of democracies that cling to the notion of a rules-based international order based on respect for human rights, the primacy of free speech, liberty under the law, the separation of executive, judicial and legislative powers, and the notion of a social compact between citizens and their (genuinely) elected governments.

As a supremely self-­interested power, Xi’s China privileges social order over individual rights, subordinates the rule of law to the dictates of the party and derives its authority from an asserted doctrinal infallibility that allows little scope for self-criticism or the tolerance of diverse views. …

It is difficult for Australians to grasp the extent to which Beijing integrates business, economic ­development and national security policy to advance its wider interests. The pre-eminent example is Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is inexorably drawing Asian countries into Beijing’s strategic orbit. Participating countries may derive tangible economic and ­development benefits from the ­initiative. But it is heavily weighted to China’s advantage and structured so that ­smaller countries risk becoming ever more dependent on China’s financial largesse, making them reluctant to take political and strategic decisions that are contrary to Beijing wishes.

China cheats:

Many of the policies designed to place China at the leading edge of the world economy are thinly disguised protectionism. They are primarily designed to move China up the hi-tech ladder while protecting domestic industries until they are ready to compete internationally.

The trouble is that some of the methods and practices employed, such as cyber theft of other countries’ intellectual property, are clearly illegal. Others are simply unfair. …

China wants control:

The dark side of China’s rise has been a well-documented propensity to use economic ­coercion to threaten or punish countries for resisting China’s geopolitical demands. Japan, The Philippines, Mongolia and Norway have all been on the receiving end of orchestrated Chinese ­embargoes and deliberately disruptive trade practices in retaliation for taking policy positions that Beijing opposed. …

The core political challenge for Australia is how to engage totalitarian China without sacrificing our democratic freedoms in the face of a concerted attempt by Xi’s party-state to change our norms, institutions and people to make them more responsive to China’s preferences and interests. Beijing’s use of soft power to achieve these ends is subtle, extensive, well-­co-ordinated and becoming more sophisticated with each passing year. …

As a populous, emerging great power with global ambitions, China brings formidable resources to the task and is clearly embarked on a mission to make Australia a more compliant state.

hat-tip Stephen Neil