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Australia’s opportunity to help China be mindful of the society of states

Posted By and on November 3, 2023 @ 13:30

At their press conference [1] last week, US President Joe Biden recounted to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese a conversation he’d had with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Xi asked him why the US was ‘working so hard’ with Australia, to which Biden replied, ‘We’re a Pacific nation, the US. We are, and we’re going to stay that way.’

During many trips to China, we’ve had similar conversations with interlocutors who have questioned the Australia–US relationship, asking why Australia doesn’t ‘choose China’. Often, they’re unaware of Australia’s long security relationship with the US, particularly its role in Australia’s defence during World War II. Moreover, mutual respect and communication often count more than economics and geographic proximity. Beijing attributes this type of misinterpretation to an ‘information deficit’.

In other instances, the probing is an attempt to deploy wedge politics—potentially what Xi was trying to do with Biden. In 2019, Beijing sent Chinese academics to Australia to criticise the governments of Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, entice Australians to ‘choose China’ and denigrate the Australia–US relationship. Their trip was wedge politics in action.

One of those academics, Chen Hong, blamed Australia [2] for the freezing of Australia–China relations, chastising Turnbull’s decision in 2018 to ban Huawei and ZTE from Australia’s 5G network. However, Turnbull’s decision supported Julia Gillard’s of 2012 to ban Huawei from bidding on Australia’s National Broadband Network. Ignoring bipartisanship and overlooking Beijing’s retaliatory actions to what were domestic matters, Chen argued that the poor state of Australia–China relations was ‘totally on the Australian side; China always promotes friendship’.

Another, Wang Yiwei, went further, warning Australia [3]: ‘If there is a war, whether a hot or cold war, you are the first sacrifice for this war.’ He called Australia ‘naive’ for trusting its alliance with the US.

They also accused Australia of ‘China bashing’ and ‘pioneering’ condemnation of China at the UN over its treatment of the Uyghur population—despite evidence of an unfolding crisis [4] in Xinjiang—and signalled that to make amends with China, and have a ‘solid deal’ with Beijing, Canberra needed to sign on to the Belt and Road Initiative [5].

While Beijing may have seen their trip as a masterstroke, it wasn’t—their efforts to entice Australia to the ‘Chinese side’ and denigration of the US reeked of desperation. Soon afterwards, Beijing attempted to punish Canberra with economic sanctions and a further freezing of relations.

Covid-19 gave Australia time to reflect on the challenges it and other regional states were facing due to an increasingly belligerent Beijing and escalating US–China competition. Numerous countries have experienced Beijing’s economic coercion, with Lithuania [6] the newest member of the club. However, economic coercion is not working for Beijing. Instead, these campaigns further tarnish Beijing’s already damaged international reputation.

Post-Covid, Xi is facing a more difficult international environment. The war in Ukraine reflects the problematic nature of China’s ‘no limits’ friendship with Russia and misunderstandings over the limits of Russian power—Xi is in the difficult position of trying to help Vladimir Putin [7] while at the same time acknowledging Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. Meanwhile, China’s lines of credit to Iran [8] provided it with an economic lifeline in the face of ongoing sanctions. Given that Tehran is a critical backer of Hamas and Hezbollah, following the brutal 7 October Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel, it appears that Beijing’s ‘information deficits’ on the intricacies of terrorist organisations may have contributed to this outcome.

So, in his upcoming discussions with Xi, Albanese should prepare for the usual attempts at wedge politics, and the likely torrent of accusations and airing of the various grievances [9] China has with Australia and the US. The Albanese team should prepare for struggle-session tactics designed to rattle them: unexpected program delays, errors in the use of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations as if they don’t apply to the great power, discussions that incorrectly start from the premise that Australia is to blame, and attempts to force a confession that former Australian Liberal Party leaders were responsible for Beijing’s recent behaviour and that the Labor Party may take penance to be rewarded.

Strategically, in response, the Albanese team should have at the ready a list of issues concerning the international political and social order—or what international-relations theorist Hedley Bull called the society of states—to constrain Xi’s temptation to belittle and isolate its visitors. The list could be substantial: transparency and accountability for global health, hostage diplomacy, economic coercion, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the recent treatment of the Philippines, and China’s relations with Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands are all valid topics to be held in reserve as possible issues that Beijing could help Australia understand.

Xi knows that China and Australia need each other to develop and prosper and that when treated with respect Australia is a good friend. Speaking to the Australian Parliament in 2014 [10], Xi said: ‘A harmonious and a stable domestic environment and a peaceful international environment are what China needs most … Dear friends, China has always viewed Australia as an important partner.’ Hence Albanese has the responsibility to help China respect the society of states and not use wedge politics, fill in the information deficit, avoid blame politics and continue bipartisanship, and he must hold steadfast to the terms set, over recent years, for a healthy, mutually respectful and sustainable Australia–China relationship. He’d also be well advised to follow Biden’s advice of ‘trust, but verify’ if any offers are made by Beijing.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australias-opportunity-to-help-china-be-mindful-of-the-society-of-states/

URLs in this post:

[1] press conference: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/trust-but-verify-biden-warns-albanese-on-risks-of-dealing-with-china-20231026-p5ef3d.html

[2] blamed Australia: https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6404552/china-claims-australia-pioneer-of-global-anti-china-campaign/?cs=14225

[3] warning Australia: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-09-25/china-academic-responds-to-scott-morrison-trade-comments/11546900

[4] crisis: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/exposing-the-chinese-governments-oppression-of-xinjiangs-uyghurs/

[5] Belt and Road Initiative: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-and-quasi-imf-lending/

[6] Lithuania: https://www.csis.org/analysis/chinas-economic-coercion-lessons-lithuania

[7] help Vladimir Putin: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-05-08/china-making-move-ukraine-putin-xi-zelenskyy-us/102313290

[8] Iran: https://thediplomat.com/2023/10/israel-iran-and-china-put-to-the-test/

[9] grievances: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/if-you-make-china-the-enemy-china-will-be-the-enemy-beijing-s-fresh-threat-to-australia-20201118-p56fqs.html

[10] 2014: https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansardr%2F35c9c2cf-9347-4a82-be89-20df5f76529b%2F0005%22;src1=sm1

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