The China Choice
31 Aug 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Ariel Dovas

The ‘China choice’ debate has flared up again in recent weeks with the Turnbull government displaying signs of confusion about where we draw the line between defending national security interests and promoting economic relations with Beijing. The handling of the Ausgrid sale has led to some Australian cringing in the face of arrogant language from a handful of Chinese officials.

Corrective action is needed to avoid serious damage to Australian ties with China. At the same time we need to focus on building a domestic consensus (to the extent that one is possible) on just how we should manage relations with Beijing.

Peter Jennings took a useful lead in a recent opinion piece in The Australian. He urged the government to direct ‘its economic departments, intelligence agencies and Defence [to] develop a shared baseline understanding of China’s growing power in both its economic and strategic dimensions’. That would be a great step forward. Structured, focused and evidence-based policy is the best kind. Jennings is right to suggest that this appears to be missing in the public domain in respect of Australia’s relations with China.

If such assessments exist inside government, and they almost certainly do, the government needs to refer to them more consistently and coherently, and in greater detail. The claim to secrecy around keeping such assessments from the public eye does appear to create unwanted and avoidable problems.

In trying to understand China, the first step for the Australian public is to ignore Chinese government propaganda. It’s often shrill, extreme and ideologically tainted. China isn’t a normal government in the way it conducts its diplomacy. Its foreign ministry is now one of the best in the world but it’s also one of the least powerful of its kind. It’s the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party that sets the tone for public discussion, and even diplomatic discussion, of the significance to be attached to international events.

Thus, when people cite a public threat from Chinese officials to retaliate against Australia for national interest decisions in reviewing foreign investment proposals, that consideration isn’t one that should be taken seriously. China has its own national security restrictions for foreign investment and they’re tougher than those applying in Australia. In private, the calmer heads in Beijing will see such decisions by Australia as falling within Canberra’s prerogative.

We need to take an equally critical view of the Chinese propaganda line about ‘peaceful rise’. This was always a purely propagandistic line developed by the Central Party School to reconcile China’s growing power with some competing and contradictory policy considerations. On the one hand, internationally, China needed to reassure its neighbours. On the other hand, at home, China had to constrain growing hawkish voices demanding to know why Beijing wasn’t being more forceful in relations with Taiwan, Japan and the United States.

The ‘peaceful rise’ thesis was also directed at channelling Chinese public opinion towards a nationalist mindset in order to keep their attention on the economic growth achievements of the Communist Party and away from the steady deterioration in social welfare conditions and the environment. It was a convenient way for the Chinese leaders to conceal an inconvenient truth that it didn’t want to admit to its own people: China wasn’t as powerful as many of its military leaders believed and if Beijing were more combative internationally it would put at risk many of the international public goods (investment, technology, market access) considered essential to continued national prosperity.

There’s a conundrum here. In recognising that the line about China’s peaceful rise was mostly propaganda, we don’t have to conclude at all that China was secretly intent on a bellicose foreign policy. In fact, we can safely conclude the exact opposite. Under Xi Jinping, China has, as Peter Jennings has noted, abandoned the peaceful rise thesis. But the replacement policy isn’t necessarily militarism, as Jennings seems to imply. It may be something else. And the new levels of militarisation by China in the South China Sea don’t necessarily define the new policy, they may be merely one tangential manifestation of it.

That brings us back to a key question posed by Jennings. How then do we evaluate China’s power and its foreign policy direction? I would urge the government to act on his recommendation for new baseline studies. I would also encourage ASPI take a lead in the research community by setting up a task force or study group of scholars with differing China specialisations and divergent views of the China problem.

There are two challenges here for the research community in Australia. The first is to redress the collapse in the past two decades in the country’s universities and think tanks of detailed studies of China’s security policies. Second, we need to achieve a broad consensus on a policy framework to deal with China that can be transparent, durable and effective in an era of almost inevitable uncertainty about just where China’s national security strategy is heading.