Anthony Albanese is holding to the belief that the most mature approach to Sino-Australia relations is to co-operate where we can, disagree when we must and always act in our national interest.
This supposedly pragmatic approach is the government’s way of stabilizing relations with China, achieving a “no surprises” approach and leaving behind the turbulence of the Turnbull-Morrison governments. Ditto Penny Wong’s stated desire to work with the US to achieve strategic equilibrium in a “multipolar region”. Both strategies seem considered and nuanced.
What’s not to like about the government’s quieter and more measured approach to China and global affairs? If the issue is to resolve disagreements with a broadly like-minded country, such as France, then it makes sense. Not so when applied to China.
There is a dangerous element of naive and fuzzy thinking surrounding the Prime Minister’s trip to China and his government’s approach to managing this difficult relationship. In international politics, what does it mean to have a stable relationship? Numerous terms come to mind: secure, honest, unchanging, durable, predictable and so on. This is the kind of relationship we would want with the US, Japan, or some of our other Southeast Asian neighbors.
It does not and should not apply to a country that’s relentlessly building its power, leverage and position at the expense of Australia, our closest allies and partners and the strategic and economic system more generally.
The idea of stability with China can only ever be regarded as a fraud or at least a furphy when the fundamental approach of Beijing is inherently destabilising. This is because it is based on strategic surprise, escalation and using coercion or inducements to challenge, change or up-end relationships, institutions and norms to advance Chinese interests.
Let’s put this in a more concrete context. Several weeks ago, ASIO boss Mike Burgess criticized China for engaging in the most elaborate and systematic state-sanctioned program of intellectual property theft in economic history. It is well known that state-backed IP theft remains an intrinsic aspect of Beijing’s economic strategy to dominate the most important sectors in the future.
One can also point to the rapid build-up of China’s nuclear arsenal over the past few years. Its development has often been opaque; rarely do you see any explanation or update when it comes to changes in China’s nuclear doctrine, which has occurred alongside a refusal to consider protocols that would prevent any unintended escalation to a nuclear exchange.
These are destabilising acts for two main reasons. First, because they are undertaken without transparency or constraint to elevate China’s position. And, second, because they advance China’s advantages without consideration of the rights or reasonable expectations of other nations.
Beijing wants to challenge or change the status quo across every element of international affairs that determines relative national power and leverage. In exchange for a steady diplomatic and economic relationship, it seeks Australian silence, neutrality and passivity.
As an issue of ongoing importance, Beijing still reserves the right to impose arbitrary economic tariffs and restrictions on any country it does not like. If Albanese had continued with the World Trade Organisation’s cases against China, it is likely they would have been found to be illegitimate and illegal. This would have been a decisive win for the rules-based order on which Albanese argues the international system ought to be based.
Yet if Australia went on with the WTO actions, it’s unlikely the Prime Minister would be in China. This is the central problem with the objective of stabilising relations with Beijing. Albanese is reluctant to point out that Xi Jinping has merely backed down from actions that he should never have taken in the first place. Trade tariffs and the release of journalist Cheng Lei are both case in points.
A very low bar has been set. Beijing is now welcoming our political leaders and telling our eager firms they might soon enjoy the unrestricted privilege – but not right – to sell their wares to China so long as Australia tones down its public condemnation of harmful Chinese actions.
If these privileges are withdrawn again, then Albanese will be blamed by Australian exporters for mismanaging the bilateral relationship. However, the death blow to stabilization will come if the PM were to become too successful in leading an international conversation against China, which might include the imposition of constraints and costs in relation to its nuclear program, its refusal to accept binding legal decisions regarding the South China Sea or its coercive trade tariffs.
This is the central question the Albanese government faces: does it want Australia to be an activist smaller power, championing the rules-based order and helping to constrain those undermining our national interest, or does it want to prioritize the avoidance of Chinese opprobrium?
This predicament also raises the government’s bid to achieve strategic equilibrium in a multi-polar region.
We exist in a diverse region with countries pursuing several different strategic approaches. But having a diversity of views doesn’t make it a multipolar region. Polarity is about state capability and power, and we are largely in a bipolar region.
Albanese and Wong correctly refer to the indispensability of the US because there is no material check against China without America.
China spends more on its military each year than the combined outlays of Asia and Oceania. This means Australia should not be seeking equilibrium – China certainly isn’t – rather it should be joining with the US and encouraging other willing nations to impose constraints on a revisionist China.
It is not an equal balance but a redistribution of power in our favor that is needed to impose meaningful constraints on China and change its calculations.
That is our best and perhaps only prospect of peace; this is what is implied in the government’s own Defence Strategic Review. Indeed it is what the US alliance, AUKUS pact and our strategic relationship are largely about.
Albanese’s message about China – co-operate where we can and disagree where we must – doesn’t clarify things for either side because co-operation and disagreement on any issue is always a policy decision.
When they meet on Monday, Xi will be more interested in testing the strategic clarity, conviction and psychological resolve of Albanese. This is the danger of landing in China and extolling the merits of diplomatic stability and friendly engagement with an aggressive power that shows little regard for the rules and interests of other nations.
It could easily be taken to mean that Australia is internalizing and normalizing Chinese expansionism and accepting China’s right to coerce other international actors. As he travels from Shanghai to Beijing, this is something our Prime Minister would do well to consider.