Australia’s delicate dance with the China dragon

Australia’s delicate dance with the China dragon, by Paul Kelly.

Few people in our political and security system doubt that China has embarked on a campaign of intimidation of unknown duration to test Australia’s resolution. The nation has crossed a more dangerous threshold with China. …

The dilemma arises from China’s nature as a flawed giant — an economic superpower with an authoritarian system and mindset. It has lied before the world over the virus and engages in naked bullying of Australia and other countries in the quest for submission. …

The government, in private, believes China seeks to teach Australia a lesson, test its resilience under pressure and see if a wedge can be driven between business and government. …

The former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese, tells Inquirer a rethink is needed and, confronting the crucial question, says: “Do not treat China as an enemy but quietly abandon the notion that we can have a comprehensive strategic partnership with China for as long as it remains a one-party authoritarian state.” …

“Our strategic interests are not aligned,” Varghese says. “It is not in Australia’s interests for China to dominate the Indo-Pacific.” Varghese calls for an Australian approach to China based on the concept of “engage and constrain”. He says it is imperative for Australia to sort out its thinking fast. “This is because there is a real risk the US will decouple from China, seek to rearrange global supply chains and embrace a containment policy,” he says. “It would be sheer folly for Australia to follow any such US approach, so contrary to our national interest.” …

Going to the power dynamic in the region, Varghese says: “The reality is that China cannot be more powerful than the collective power of the ‘quad’ — the US, Japan, India and Australia — and I think Indonesia and Vietnam can be added into that. …

“It changes the nature of leverage — leverage becomes a two-way street, not just a one-way street that we see China using against Australia. Each of these nations has its own reasons for not wanting to see China dominate the region. Their common purpose is ensuring this does not happen. China must understand there are consequences flowing from its behaviour. Australia cannot impose those consequences on its own but they can be imposed through collective power.

“We must make it clear to Washington that Australia will not support a policy of containing China or re-engineering supply chains to exclude China. But we will support greater diversification of supply chains,” he says.