Australia and China have very different notions of stability
23 Jan 2024|

Last week’s Chinese embassy press conference was a further effort to corral Australia into compliance and compromise with Beijing’s views.

Remarks by Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian and other embassy officials confirm what many national security observers have been worried about for months.

If we pull our punches, if we subordinate our values and long-term interests to a short-term effort to orchestrate a trouble-free diplomatic relationship, we won’t actually buy stability. Rather we’ll find ourselves on a slope where nothing we do is good enough, and we will be eternally tempted to find unilateral compromises.

The embassy press conference demonstrated Beijing is looking for Australia to keep sliding ever closer to positions that will satisfy the Chinese Communist Party.

Questions about the sonar burst that our government says injured Australian naval personnel prompted an official to warn against making trouble on China’s doorstep.

Questions about the Taiwanese election elicited further demands that Australia stay silent when Taiwan freely elects a new leader.

These would be breaches of Australia’s core values. We have every right to operate in international waters as HMAS Toowoomba was doing in support of a United Nations mission late last year. And Australia should never shrink from championing the expression of democracy through free and fair elections, as we have through statements on Taiwan’s election that were actually fairly mild.

The day we fail to celebrate people’s participation in their own government—something mainland Chinese people don’t enjoy—is the day we might as well pack our bags and go home, geopolitically speaking. Xiao stated bluntly that Beijing could show no flexibility or compromise on Taiwan, meaning any shift to smooth the waters would have to come from Australia.

Stabilisation is the stated goal of the Australian government, but Beijing has a different definition of stability. Australia wants to co-operate where we can and disagree where we must, but Beijing doesn’t accept when we disagree. This was clear from Xiao’s opening remarks, which painted an ambitious picture of an ever deepening relationship that ignored differences and sought increased co-operation, including joint defence exercises.

How could we seriously have joint exercises with a military that is bullying a democratic nation in the Philippines through steady and calculated harassment of its vessels in the South China Sea? We couldn’t speak out with a straight face the next time the Chinese navy used water cannon on a Philippines ship. But that’s the idea.

Beijing is trying to achieve its strategic objectives through aggression, coercion and threats. This is its own doing, not Australia’s. Xiao’s naked threat to Australia ahead of the Taiwan poll, warning that support for Taiwanese independence—which is not Australia’s position—would push the Australian people ‘over the edge of an abyss’ should be intolerable.

For the sake of staking out consistent positions on core issues, Canberra should make clear that such remarks are unacceptable. While unlikely to change Beijing’s malign objectives, we would send a signal that stability, to us, doesn’t mean submission, but prioritising our own security, transparently and consistently.

Sonar attacks, threatening Australians with the abyss, unfair trade sanctions—they all demand condemnation because they are breaches of rules and norms that are essential to our region’s future. Inconsistent responses only contribute to the degradation of the rules that have helped keep us secure since 1945.

Xiao also continued the recent Chinese government effort to drive divisions between Australia and Japan, hinting preposterously that the Japanese Armed Forces might have been responsible for the sonar attack.

This points to another Beijing ambition—ham fisted though its execution might seem. It would prefer that regional partnerships are weakened so that it can manage others bilaterally, giving it a sizeable advantage.

But Australia needs friends, partners with whom we co-ordinate and collaborate. We can’t have regional stability unless we work together to balance and deter China, impose costs for its transgressions and gradually persuade it that bullying and coercion will be ineffectual and detrimental to its own interests. Stabilisation can’t become code for tolerating Beijing’s destabilising activity. The UK made this mistake in the 1930s, with disarmament and appeasement policies that tolerated German rearmament and illegal land grabs.

As we start 2024 with increasingly confident authoritarian regimes, wars in Europe and the Middle East and increased tension in the Indo-Pacific, democracies like Australia are faced with two roads diverging. The pathway ahead is not a confected improvement to the bilateral relationship with Beijing that rests on our biting our tongue and entering into arrangements that only leave us more vulnerable, such as returning to an excessive and risky trade dependence.

We are no longer in a period of stability to be maintained but an era of instability that means a business-as-usual approach will be insufficient. Our approach needs extra effort ranging from greater defence investment to diplomacy that manages tensions rather than ignoring them—because whatever the rhetorical niceties, our long-term values shouldn’t be sacrificed for short-term interests. Both roads cannot be travelled.