A new vision for China–Australia relations

Author: Stuart Harris, ANU

Australia’s foreign policy has been a mix of positives and negatives under the Liberal-National Coalition government, as was true of the previous Labor government. Former prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke recognised the need for Australia to think strategically about future regional developments, and John Howard’s thinking gradually moved in that direction. Such long-term strategic thinking, centred on Australia’s geographic realities and its evolving regional relationships, is more urgently needed today.

Asia’s regional dynamics are changing. While the US is a Pacific power, it’s an outsider in Asia. To complicate the picture, the region features a China that is the largest trading partner of all Asian nations, including Australia. Australia’s future relations with the region, in Northeast Asia and with ASEAN particularly, will depend upon its relations with China as well as with the US.

A coherent strategy must reflect the reality that Australia is linked to Asia from within the region. It needs to reflect the growing importance of China globally and to Australia, and to develop a political depth with that country similar to that with the US. And it will be increasingly difficult to continue separating the economic and strategic issues of this engagement.

As a result, Australia needs a greater understanding of China’s environment, history, and culture, including its political system. Australia need not like that system, but it must be able to work effectively with it.

The dominant and often one-sided Western perspective is not always helpful when judging whether China will be aggressive and expansionist or whether it will live more or less peaceably with the rest of the world. Westerners often assume that terms like ‘international rules’, ‘global order’ and what constitutes ‘responsible behaviour’ are understood and accepted by all others. Yet for China, these terms have emerged from a different culture and historical experience. These differences in vision affect China’s foreign policy.

Yet, despite obvious exceptions, such as human rights, China is well integrated into the international system and largely complies with international rules — probably at least as well as other major powers. China’s reluctance to lead internationally might suggest not just free-riding but a reluctance to challenge the existing global order.

When China opened up, it joined an international order that reflected a pluralistic view of the international community, that acknowledged differences in political and domestic value systems, and that pursued mutually acceptable global rules and geopolitical equilibrium. Then the common vision shifted and the membership bar was raised.

Ultimately, a US-led international system emerged that involved an agenda of good governance, ‘free’ markets and ‘democracy’ (usually just elections). These aimed to advance US security and its other interests. The objective of regime change under this agenda in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria and perhaps Ukraine suggests we should be cautious about what we wish for. For China, in any case, this agenda implies regime change, social instability, and the end of the Party-state.

Of course, China has regional and global ambitions and its relative military and other capacities will grow substantially. China wants a role that commands attention and respect from its neighbours, particularly in its ‘near abroad’, and Australia may not always like what it or others do. The US needs to manage relations between states rather than just pursue political change or impose views of complex issues that then become part of the problem.

China feels internationally vulnerable and, as with the US, domestic nationalism influences its policies. Internally, China’s leaders fear fragmentation, instability and competition for power. There are major problems to deal with at home.

With domestic issues as its main priority, China’s foreign policies will remain largely defensive and reactive to external influences, rather than offensive and expansive. China knows it needs stable relations with the US and its neighbours in order to sustain its development. It will seek changes to the rules by basically working within the existing framework.

Maritime disputes are worrying but hardly central to Australia’s strategic interests. Sovereignty claims by all parties are unhelpful and pose serious risks of miscalculation. Australia’s attention is understandably focused on China, but the historical context needs to be understood, including China’s ‘missing out’ on territory in the 1960s and 1970s regional ‘island grab’. Provocations and efforts to change the status quo are not limited to China or unconnected to the US pivot and the regionally divisive Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A US regional presence remains strategically important, but the US and Australia’s values and vital interests are often different and Australia needs to re-examine its concepts of regional order. There are considerable risks in Australia’s growing enmeshment in the US regional security system to where Australia’s security policy is increasingly a function of that of the US, and an independent Australian position is difficult to maintain.

These issues will become important in the future with any adverse regional developments, notably potentially over Taiwan. US diplomatic management of such problems will remain critical. But history will treat unkindly any Australian political leader who, consciously or inadvertently, commits Australia to military conflict involving China without clear public support and a full parliamentary debate, based on an explicit strategic assessment of Australia’s long term vital interests.

Stuart Harris is Emeritus Professor in the Department of International Relations, at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. His latest book, China’s foreign policy, is available from Wiley.

This article was originally published at policyforum.net, the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society. 

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