China respects strategic realism, not flattery
9 Jul 2015|

Getting China right is a key challenge for Australian foreign policy. It’s not easy to do given  our tendency to scare ourselves witless with overblown assessments of Chinese power.

Foreign observers who know China well puzzle about Australian views of the country. Every foreign policy move is assessed for the apparent distress it might cause in Beijing. An Aussie military exercise with America. Won’t the Chinese see that as a provocation? Our Navy needs submarines. Surely that will enrage the People’s Liberation Army? Academics seriously warn us not to get close to Japan and to reduce US alliance ties because these might not play well in Beijing.

In The Australian on Monday Bob Carr warned that we should only ’emphasise the positive’ about China so as not to rouse the dragon.  That was certainly how Carr played his brief time as Foreign Minister.  His diary recounts how he sought to underplay growing defence cooperation with the US at the 2011 AUSMIN meeting in Perth, precisely out of concern that China might object to Marines in Darwin.

The Chinese are astute enough not to regard a few hundred visiting Marines as a dagger pointed at the heart of the Middle Kingdom. But China isn’t beyond toying with our mistaken view that the world hangs on Australian policy decisions.  So it is that every utterance by ambitious PLA senior colonels or reference in People’s Daily editorials is combed by Australian commentators looking for signs that we may have transgressed some Chinese boundary.

The concern to not poke the dragon produces a form of inverse critique of Australian policy moves. For example, at a time of significantly raised tension between China and Japan in 2014, Beijing unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. Julie Bishop sensibly said this hurt Australian and regional interests in freedom of air transit. But it’s the Australian reaction rather than the Chinese action that is said by Carr and others to be the miscalculation.

Similarly Tony Abbott is chided for saying that Australia has no better friend in Asia than Japan. He talks of Japan as an ally, an often used description of close partners rather than implying a formal treaty relationship.  In both cases this is criticised by Australian rather than Chinese observers, not because Abbott’s statements are incorrect—he’s right on both counts—but because they might generate negative reaction in Beijing.

After some years of participating in and leading senior Defence talks with PLA counterparts my observation of dealing with Chinese leaders is that they understand very well Australia has a strong alliance relationship with the US and that it won’t be broken by Beijing’s preference that such ‘Cold War alliances’ wither away.

The Chinese understand that the US strategic presence in Asia has been the basis of post-war stability and therefore of Chinese economic growth.  To the extent China has any interest in defence cooperation with Australia it’s because they think our substantially US-sourced technology and intelligence engagement makes the Australian Defence Force a more valuable partner.

Beijing pragmatically acknowledges the value the US alliance delivers to Australia’s role in the  Asia–Pacific.  But as an opportunistic actor, China won’t hesitate to play up to the instincts of Australian commentators always looking for ways to make Canberra rather than Beijing the problem in regional security.

To be clear on this latter point, it’s Beijing (not Canberra) that is constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea. It’s Beijing (not Canberra) that has built a 3000 metre, military-grade runway on one of these islands, located artillery and sensors there and persists in playing risky games of chicken with the ships and aircraft of other countries transiting the region.

Australia’s foreign policy approach to China should articulate and then hold to our view of Australian strategic interests. That will be respected more by Beijing than emphasising only the positive or turning a blind eye to Chinese actions—like declaring the ADIZ or building artificial islands—which raise regional tensions.

An Australian approach based on arguing for our strategic interests has not yet, and is unlikely to damage bilateral ties with Beijing. On the contrary, it makes us look like a country which is predictable, open and knows its own mind.

Contrast this with New Zealand’s approach. Although John Key has done a lot to return New Zealand closer to the US and Australia as defence partners, Wellington’s public diplomacy studiously tries to balance between Chinese and American interests as though there is no meaningful difference between the two countries. New Zealand’s uncomfortable silence when China declared its ADIZ bought it no extra credit in Beijing, beyond a rather contemptuous view that ‘small countries’ should keep their mouths shut on big strategic matters.

It’s pointless to pretend that Chinese interests in the  Asia–Pacific align to the interests of other countries in the region or indeed globally; that’s what makes the ‘disputes’ in the South China Sea so intractable. ASEAN and other countries including Australia failed to identify that Chinese island construction was rapidly moving the problem from one of international legal positions to a far grittier fight over expanding strategic control.

To have any hope of limiting further Chinese opportunistic attempts to create reality on the ground in the South China Sea and elsewhere, we need to take a hard-eyed assessment of our strategic interests. Preemptive capitulation or false attempts to emphasise the positive won’t help in the tough minded contest for power in the region.