China’s efforts to break the Australia–US alliance
16 Dec 2013|

'Go' board gameIn the Chinese Buddhist tradition, as we flail in the ‘bitter sea’ of existential illusion, we only need to ‘turn to the other shore,’ constituted by the Buddhist path, in order to find Enlightenment. Australia is now being urged by China to seek its own enlightenment—to give up the ways of illusion constituted by alliance with the United States and to turn to the other shore, a shore provided by closer political and strategic alliance with the PRC.

The kerfuffle at the recent Australia–China Forum held in Canberra in late November—the third in the series – was an excellent example of these efforts by China. The Chinese delegation to this 1.5 track conclave was led by Ambassador Li Zhaoxing who heads, among other organisations, a People’s Liberation Army front organisation known as the China Association for International Friendly Contact. Despite the bland press release on the conclave offered by the Australian Foreign Minister , with its perhaps less than accurate headline ‘Australia-China Forum forges closer ties,’ a newspaper report by Peter Hartcher, who also attended the conference, more accurately describes what transpired at the event.

Hartcher describes the anger vented by the Chinese side during the forum as initially directed towards the Australian statements criticising the PRC’s unilateral announcement of an air-defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. However, the pique was then extended to the apparent cause of this ‘unwarranted intrusion’ into China’s affairs—Australia’s close alliance with the United States. According to Hartcher, reporting under Chatham House rules, the Chinese side called into question the robustness of the Australia-US relationship, suggesting that this relationship was simply ‘a product of the Cold War’, and that today this entente negatively affects China’s ‘core interests, its sovereignty and its territorial interests’. Australia should therefore, by implication, recognise on which side its bread is buttered and act responsibly.

When Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop arrived in Beijing in early December for the first China-Australia diplomatic and strategic dialogue, while the language was not quite as strong, she still copped more of the ‘disloyal vassal’ rhetoric. Unsmiling PRC foreign minister Wang Yi expressed China’s hope that ‘the Australian side can properly handle sensitive issues from a strategic and long-term perspective,’ so as to ‘increase mutual trust and expand substantial cooperation’ in order to ‘ensure the right direction of the China-Australia strategic partnership’. And it wasn’t just the Communist Party of China which thought that Australia had jeopardised trust—it was the ‘entire Chinese society and the general public’. Xinhua even flew a balloon claiming that Julie Bishop had said that ‘China is the most important economic and strategic partner of Australia’.

Australia’s strong and immediate response to the declaration of an ADIZ certainly shocked China. Anyone closely listening to PRC sotto voce suggestions to Australia and its officials over the last few years will have recognised a continuing leitmotif—Australia’s long-term interests will be much better served by turning away from the United States with its fickle foreign policy and aligning itself more closely with its major trading partner, China. The lockstep US-Australia response to the ADIZ declaration showed Chinese officials that their efforts in this respect have so far been in vain, and it was frustration over this that was reflected at the Canberra meeting.

But what’s the rationale for such attempts by China to cleave the Australia-US alliance? Obviously, achieving some distance between these allies, or in fact any allies, will prove beneficial to China in any future conflict. While divide et impera is an almost universal strategy, imperial China pursued this policy in the past with extreme efficacy. During the Cold War, we saw the PRC effectively pursuing such policies across Southeast Asia, and today we’re observing similar efforts globally.

Taking advantage of an admitted lack of American strategy to deal with China’s new naval power and assertiveness, China is widely pursuing efforts to divide the United States from its allies in the Asia-Pacific. This has been described as a board game of calibrated coercion, with the aim to ‘blunt U.S. influence across Asia and sow doubt about America’s commitment to its allies in the region’—precisely what we observe happening in Australia.

But while these efforts to divide are obvious, other Chinese endeavours are aimed at bringing together China’s neighbours under a new arrangement. At a conference on diplomatic work with neighbouring countries in late October, PRC President Xi Jinping stressed that

China needs to work hard to advance diplomacy with neighbouring countries, strive to achieve a sound surrounding environment for China’s development, and enable neighbouring countries to benefit more from China’s development for the purpose of common development.

And, more specifically,

China needs to protect and make the best use of the strategic opportunities to safeguard China’s national sovereignty, security and development interests. China needs to develop closer ties with neighbouring countries, with more friendly political relations, stronger economic bonds, deeper security cooperation and closer people-to-people contacts.

President Xi summed this up as a ‘Community of Common Destiny’ (命运共同体). Australia is undoubtedly one of the key targets for this new Chinese embrace, and the speech is prominently displayed on the website of the Chinese embassy in Australia.

This appears to be a geographical extension of the historical concept of tian-xia (that space which a Chinese state is the centre of), from what might be called China proper to the quadrisphere comprising the Eastern half of Eurasia, Offshore Asia and Oceania.

One should never ignore the element of history in China’s perceptions of itself and the world. And there’s still a great sense of injustice within China with respect to the expansion of European powers over the last five centuries and the effects which this has had on China’s regional influence (even if China’s own expansion into other polities throughout history is considered to be a natural process).

The reversal of perceived ‘national shame’ and the pursuit of ‘national glory’ are elements which continue to fill rhetorical space in China, far more so than in any other country. There is today a ‘Great Renaissance of the Chinese Nation Index’, which claims that China has attained only 65% of its former glory, while in the recent Communiqué of the Third Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee , it’s ‘the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ that must be pursued in ‘the face of extremely complex international circumstances’.

The obvious efforts to break the Australia-US alliance are an integral element in China’s reassertion of national glory, and appear to be part of a larger grand strategy to eventually extend Chinese authority and influence over the entire western Pacific. Those who urge a new power sharing-arrangement and a greater role in East Asian regional leadership for the secretive, expanding and often repressive one-party state that is the PRC only encourage and facilitate such aspirations.

Geoff Wade is a visiting fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.Image courtesy of Flickr user spwelton.