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Why our China policy is based on a fundamental error
By Geoff Raby
Published on 19 August 2019 on Australian Financial Review
US hawks view China as a threat because it broke a deal which never existed. But we have no need to follow them.
Andrew Hastie’s intervention on the China threat helpfully highlights the extent to which Australia’s intelligence, security and defence establishment is running Australia’s China foreign policy. In stark language he has laid out many of the assumptions that underlie the supposed Threat. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s assertion, as Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, his is no mere private view.
Hastie’s dog-whistle invocation of the Maginot Line did not need him to compare China with Nazi Germany, which he did not. But when Germany overran France it was run by a Nazi Government. His implication was clear. China needs to be confronted at every turn. But the assumptions underlying the China threat are contested, as are the historical analogies used to support it.
Hastie has done little more than repackage the tired fare from the US China threat people, for which there is so much appetite among Australian conservative think tanks and media. Echoing the sentiments of Vice President Mike Pence from his Hudson Institute speech of October last year, Hastie’s main point is that this is an ideological struggle with China.
Most of Hastie’s assertions derive from arch-China hawk Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower. Hastie’s reference to a “10-decade” struggle is based on Pillsbury’s maths. Of the many refutable assumptions underlying Pillsbury’s influential book, perhaps the most flimsy, which Hastie hangs his hat on, is a type of buyer’s regret.
It is asserted that China has welched on an implied understanding that as its economy grew and its people prospered through greater integration into the international system, China’s political system would become more liberal and democratic. It is not China’s fault if some in the US deluded themselves. China never indicated that “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” meant anything other than the Communist Party remaining in power.
If neo-conservative ideologues in the US didn’t understand that, then the same wishful thinking was never a serious premise for Australia’s, and just about everyone else’s, engagement with China. Engagement of China in the international system was because the alternative of not doing so would be potentially far worse, and for the economic benefits that have flowed. As with all sound foreign policy, it was based on self-interest as, of course, was the decision by China itself to engage. China’s becoming a liberal democracy was not part of the deal.
In Australian policy circles, the prevailing view from as far back as the 1980s was that China’s political system would evolve along with economic growth and an increasing role of markets, but that China would find its own form of political and social organisation. It was hoped that this would become more participatory and open, but few believed that a contestable political system would prevail.
The untested assumption of China as a strategic threat to Australia now dominates policy circles in Canberra. Hastie feels no need to make the case. It is enough simply to assert what is now widely seen as a self-evident truth. Discussion is closed. With the appointment of China hawk Andrew Shearer to Cabinet Secretary, policy advice will become even narrower and the security establishment’s bellicose view of China further entrenched.
The Opposition would appear to be as enamoured with the security establishment running Australia’s China policy as is the Government. It was left to Labor’s Shadow defence spokesman, Richard Marles, to respond to Hastie.
Disingenuously, Marles proposed a bi-partisan approach to China, as if there wasn’t one at present. Since the Morrison government moved away from the damaging, self-important, stridency of Turnbull/Bishop and tried to approach the relationship with China with a measure of maturity there has been no difference between the Government and the Opposition.
This is the problem for the Opposition when it essentially accepts the intelligence establishment’s assumptions about China and frames the difference between it and the Government in terms of messaging. It is easy for the Government to change its messaging, which it has done, leaving the Opposition with no thought-through policy.
Probably at no other time, has policy advice to government been so narrowly based, nor the Opposition so cowed by the bureaucracy into policy convergence with the Government, as it is at the present over Australia’s China policy.
This is a curious state of affairs as Australia’s China policy is caught in a deep, fundamental, contradiction. In aligning Australia so closely with the United States, the security establishment views China as a strategic competitor and hence to be treated with strategic mistrust and to be challenged on all fronts – be it in the Pacific, over its global ambitions with respect to the Belt and Road Initiative, technology and cyber, in the Indian Ocean, or on the campuses of our universities or in our board rooms.
All these positions are quite consistent, and Hastie has set out to legitimise those policies, albeit based on highly contestable assumptions. The policy challenge is, however, that unlike for the United States, China is not a strategic competitor of Australia. A view with which, in public at least, the Australian Government concurs.
If China is indeed a strategic competitor, then Government should say so clearly, with all the consequences identified, including diminished security, reduced economic opportunities, limited regional and international influence, much higher defence and security expenditures, among other things.
It would also be helpful if the Government explained why China was such a threat to Australia when it is not to our regional neighbours, such as New Zealand, Singapore, Indonesia or Malaysia, all of which are democracies of a fashion, are overwhelmingly dependent on the Chinese economy and seek continued US engagement in East Asia to balance China.
Australia’s China policy is a mess because it is so conflicted. China policy needs to start with a rigorous discussion over the core assumptions that underlie the China Threat scenario. A sense of proportionality is also required. As is the definition of Australia’s interests as distinct from those of the US. An honest discussion would begin by acknowledging these differences.