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Australia needs to toughen up on China relations

Peter JenningsAuthor: Peter Jennings 

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s reported comment that ‘We don’t want to see (Australia) taking sides, as happened during the Cold War’, reflects a view often put by Chinese commentators, but it is unusual to hear it from the Chinese Communist Party’s second most senior figure. 

The remark is a not-so veiled attack against Australia’s alliance with the United States. It’s no secret China wants to weaken America’s alliances in the Pacific. Its rhetoric is that those alliances are the result of an outdated ‘Cold War mentality. In fact, the alliances stand in the way of Beijing’s wish to strategically dominate the region.

If the leader of a country less important than China visited Australia and started telling us how to run our defence policy, the natural response would be to say we make the decisions about what’s vital to national security.

At Thursday’s Parliament House lunch for the Premier, Malcolm Turnbull tried to shape the conversation onto more positive territory: ‘I want to talk about our friendship, not test it’ he said, echoing John Howard’s approach of emphasising the positive when hosting Chinese leaders.

Howard’s approach suited the 1990s and a little beyond, but the reality is that our bilateral relations with China will be much more difficult in coming years for three main reasons.

First, China has shed the language of ‘peaceful rise’ and is now pursuing a more assertive international policy . It militarily annexed the South China Sea as blatantly as Russia took the Crimea. It openly bullies Southeast Asia, and simply doesn’t care about negative reactions.

Second, Australia’s China relationship is no longer just about selling them stuff. The rapid ramp up of Chinese investment into Australian critical infrastructure like ports, gas pipelines and the electricity grid doesn’t just have economic consequences is making Australia vulnerable to coercion.

Third, Beijing is copying a Russian practice of seeking to influence domestic opinion in other countries, including Australia. Those ardent Chinese students camped outside of Li’s hotel and waiving professionally printed banners outside Parliament didn’t just spontaneously emerge. That takes coordination and money.

Beyond happy students it’s impossible to escape the insistent spruiking of Beijing’s Australian advocates, who are always calling for more pragmatism and more willingness to overlook any Chinese blemishes, while playing up Trump’s arrival as a reason to put more distance into the US relationship.

Bob Carr asserts in The Australian that this type of uncritical engagement with China is ‘pragmatically drawing it into global governance’. But where is there any shred of evidence to point to that trend? China is increasingly setting its own path, ignoring international law in the South China Sea, eroding Hong Kong’s fragile political autonomy, driving Party influence more deeply into Chinese business and writing its own international rules.

A popular advertising meme neatly expresses Beijing’s preferred approach to its neighbours: ‘shut up and take my money.’ We have been more than happy to oblige, but the hidden costs of this enriching strategy are becoming more obvious.

Donald Trump’s arrival on this risky international stage makes it even more important for Australia to have a clear grasp of our strategic interests and a plan about how to defend them. 

The most obvious strategy – which Japan, the UK, Canada, Germany and other sensible countries are following – is to strengthen alliance cooperation with the US, not walk away from it as Beijing and its camp followers advocate.

A start would be to make it clear to Premier Li that we regard our alliance with the US as a core strategic interest – one that’s not open for discussion with Beijing. 

Then we should make a hard assessment about whether we are doing enough for our own defence effort. President Trump isn’t wrong when he complains that America’s allies have been free riding on their defence spending.

Australia now has a good story to tell about its military budget, its plans to re-equip the defence Force and the important contribution we are making in the fight against ISIS. But we shouldn’t get too complacent. There are some deep strategic problems breaking in the region, most prominently North Korea, which could lead to serious military conflict very quickly.

Rather than waiting for Trump to grade our alliance homework, Australia should be approaching Washington with a plan to sharply boost alliance cooperation.

One part of the plan should be to widen cooperation to other key friends and allies. It’s time to reopen discussion about so-called ‘Quadrilateral’ defence cooperation between Australia, the US, Japan and India – the key democratic states of the Indo Pacific.

Of course China would oppose such an idea, but we need to get over the reflex action of pre-emptively ducking just because Beijing disapproves if Australia is to behave as an independent and mature strategic country.

In Australia’s bilateral relationship with China there is a need for strong-minded maturity too. One announced outcome of Premier Li’s visit was the signing of a ‘declaration of intent regarding the review of elements of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement.’

Presumably this will address the skeleton chapter on investment. By all means we should consider ‘investment liberalisation’, as Turnbull calls it, but this time around we need to apply a thorough-going review of the national security implications.

A start point should be to understand that China will never open foreign investment access to its ports, energy grids and other critical infrastructure. It’s not irrational or xenophobic for Australia to want to protect its own infrastructure.

My own experience of dealing with the Chinese military over quite a few years is that they respect countries that operate with the same strategic tough-mindedness as they do. By contrast, Beijing will accept every concession we are prepared to make on regional security and still keep pressing for more.

Originally published: The Weekend Australian. 25 March 2017 

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and is a former deputy secretary for strategy in the Department of Defence.