Allan Gyngell’s essay is commendable for its even-keeled policy prescriptions and rare level-headed tone in discussing our complex and consequential relationship with China.
The China debate in Australia is becoming dominated by competing filters, as Gyngell points out. He warns that politicians voicing their thought bubbles can be outright damaging to the national interest. Our policy on China calls for bipartisanship and should be founded on sound foreign policy principles, not play to the populism of the day.
Across politics, government, academia and the media, many are commenting on China’s internal and external behaviour using reheated ideological tropes. Some believe that Beijing’s growing techno-authoritarian traits and Leninist roots make it an innate danger to everything we hold dear. But Cold War and Orwellian analogies are poor substitutes for critical thinking. We should not pre-emptively cast China only as a threat.
This recycled thinking is out of touch with the nuanced challenges that China’s rise represents for Australia and the region. Framing China as alien to us unhelpfully ignores that Chinese strategists are students of Carl von Clausewitz as well as Sun Tzu. Even if they weren’t, China is beholden to the same geopolitical constraints that have always applied to great powers.
The idea that China is acting or will act differently to other rising powers because of its political system or its culture is not supported by history. Yet this assumption is central to some who cast any form of diplomatic engagement with Beijing as panda-hugging and, ultimately, appeasement. Ironically, the same assumption feeds the narrative of Chinese propagandists and their apologists in the West, who argue that, by virtue of its uniqueness, China can only rise peacefully.
We can avoid these pitfalls by adopting a more realist, independent and balanced foreign policy posture, and not only in regard to China.
Realism means recalibrating our words to more honestly match our deeds. For instance, the government often takes credit for upholding the rules-based order, but engages in ham-fisted megaphone diplomacy and tactless sledging of multilateral institutions.
We should absolutely express our concerns on core values such as human rights, especially when there are deeply worrying reports of rights violations, as in China’s mass detention of Uighurs. But to avoid being accused of double standards, we would need to be consistent by not remaining deafeningly silent when serious allegations concern important strategic partners other than China.
Too often, the government treats foreign policy like virtue-signalling. This is the only way to explain how cabinet ministers can think it helpful to repeatedly snipe at our largest trading partner where diplomatic channels would be far more effective.
This sniping needs to stop. We can learn from our neighbours. Some of our South-East Asian friends have managed to carefully and effectively balance bland public statements on the most sensitive issues in their relationships with China – including on territorial claims in the South China Sea – with pointed actions. This is more effective than conducting foreign policy by media release without commensurate action.
Realism also means recognising the limits of our relative power in the region and doing something about it. This was on Kevin Rudd’s mind when he announced Australia’s acquisition of twelve future submarines.
A more realist and independent Australian foreign policy is not about choosing between the United States and China. It’s about choosing the path of all self-respecting middle powers and of every great power: self-reliance. A bigger, stronger, more independent Australia would more comfortably define and assert its interests independently of other Indo-Pacific or Western capitals, even if doing so could mean standing alone and without cover from our traditional allies.
Such a position would not pose a threat to our alliance with the United States, as some erroneously think. Being a “strategy maker” and not just a “strategy taker” in the region, to use former chief of the army Peter Leahy’s useful distinction, would make us an even more valuable US ally.
Adopting a balanced foreign policy also means defining values we won’t trade for interests – and core interests we won’t trade for lesser interests. And it would mean realising that our values often compete. Gyngell reminds us that prosperity is a value too. So is peace, as Hugh White has written.
Foreign policy is a complex business, and so is our relationship with China. Both are only becoming more so. While a more realist, independent and balanced foreign policy would not end this complexity, it would make us more self-assured, more consistent and, ultimately, more successful at finding our identity and our sense of security within Asia.
Luke Gosling is the federal member for Solomon and chair of federal Labor’s Indo-Pacific Trade Taskforce.
This piece was first published as correspondence in the February 2020 issue of Australian Foreign Affairs. It responds to Allan Gyngell’s essay ‘History hasn’t ended’.