The Chinese elephant in Australia–Japan relations

Author: Merriden Varrall, Lowy Institute

Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Tokyo, where she outlined an increasing emphasis on security cooperation between Japan and Australia. The next day she was in Beijing, where she reportedly received a frosty reception. The two are not unrelated — Beijing is not thrilled about Australia’s growing security ties with Japan.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prior to their meeting in Tokyo. (Photo: AAP)

Because Australia is concerned about China’s increasing assertiveness in the region, but at the same time benefits from China economically, we find ourselves in somewhat of a foreign policy pickle. In this very complex situation, it is critical that Australian policymakers respond with both immediate and long-term outcomes in mind. To understand the long-term implications for Australia’s interests of policies drawing Japan and Australia closer together, we need to understand how Chinese policymakers view the world and China’s role within it.

Opinions of Sino–Australian relations in Australia are ambivalent and often sceptical. The 2015 Lowy Institute Poll clearly shows Australia’s ambivalence towards China. While most Australian trust the United States, they are far less certain about China. Australians have conflicting views about what China’s intentions are and what they mean for Australia. Of the respondents, 61 per cent felt that China wants to dominate Asia, and just over half thought that China’s growth into an important global power does not make the world more stable.

At the same time, 67 per cent felt that the Chinese government aims ‘to create a better life for Chinese people’, and, compared to 2014, fewer Australians in 2015 felt that China is likely to pose a direct military threat to Australia in the next 20 years.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these uncertainties, Australians appear eager to hedge their bets and play it safe with China. 73 per cent agreed that ‘Australia should develop closer relations with China as it grows in influence’. Fifty-two per cent believed that Australia should not join with other countries to limit China’s influence.

The Poll suggests that Australians are not sure what the consequences of China’s growing global influence will be. All the same, there is a strong sense that Australia would be wise to be on good terms with China as it becomes more powerful. This was a view that underpinned Australia’s decision to become a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, despite US disapproval.

In comparison to China, Australians view relations with Japan more positively. In a thermometer measuring warmth of feelings towards other countries, Japan rated 68 degrees, to China’s lukewarm 58 degrees. While an overwhelming majority of 84 per cent said that Australia should remain neutral in the case of a ‘military conflict between China and Japan’, 11 per cent said Australia should support Japan, and only 3 per cent said it would be better to support China. This relative warmth towards Japan is reflected in Australia’s deepening security ties with Japan, as shown in its signing in February 2016 of an agreement on new joint maritime security and surveillance operations in the Pacific.

China does not react positively to these growing Australia-Japan security linkages. Future security agreements between Australia and Japan need to take the worldviews of China’s policymakers into consideration. Failing to acknowledge how Chinese policymakers themselves see the world, and how China fits into it, can lead to policies that are ineffective, if not counter-productive, in the longer term.

Several worldviews within which Chinese policymakers operate are particularly relevant to Chinese understandings of its place in the world, namely: the century of humiliation, a conception of national cultural characteristics as inherent and unchanging, the idea of history as destiny, and notions of filial piety and familial obligation that apply both inside China and to its neighbours. These four ideas add up to a foreign policy paradigm that assumes China will resume the central role it once played in regional and global affairs.

Many Chinese policymakers feel that the United States and its allies are holding China back from its rightful leadership, and from the global benefits such leadership would bring. As such, rather than providing a disincentive from further ‘bad behaviour’, this kind of security cooperation creates the serious risk of further entrenching China’s sense of exceptionalism and exclusion from — and irrelevance of — the prevailing international order. China’s disapproval is in itself counterproductive, and serves to reiterate the uncertainty and tension that led to Australia and Japan seeking closer security cooperation.

This negative cycle of mistrust is already having consequences for the security of the region. The call to understand Chinese perspectives when determining foreign and security policy is not an argument for simply accepting China’s view of the world as correct, or appeasing China. Rather, it is about clearly surveying the reality of the regional security situation, and taking long-term goals into consideration when making policy choices now. We should be aware that what may seem to be effective deterrence policy today may be creating more complicated security dilemmas in the future.

Dr Merriden Varrall is the Director of the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute.

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