Where to with China?
18 Oct 2019|

The ramshackle character of public policy is most clearly on show when senior ministers go freelancing. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s leap into the China fray might have felt good to a frustrated former policeman, but did nothing for his boss whose pre-politics life was limited to public-sector marketing.

So Senator Penny Wong had an enjoyable romp at the Australian Institute of International Affairs national conference. In an entertaining speech, she identified two of the main features of the prime minister’s feckless foray into foreign affairs. First, Scott Morrison’s gratuitous use of the ‘race card’ in his defence of Gladys Liu against questions about her past political allegiances and fundraising activities. And second, his ‘reckless’ demand that China should lose its developing country status—playing directly into American domestic politics and awarding China a free kick against us.

But the ability to call out the emperor’s state of foreign policy undress isn’t the same as a qualification in tailoring.

That’s our difficulty right now. We can identify some of the symptoms of a systemic problem—China’s heavy-handedness in the South China Sea, our concerns about foreign interference in our politics, China’s possible manipulation of its ‘private’ companies against Australian interests, boisterous Chinese students on our university campuses, our anxiety about China’s wish to ‘buy up the farm’ (well, sort of), our old fear of some kind of Chinese ‘fifth column’ in our body politic, and gloomy expectations of Chinese repression in Hong Kong—but we don’t appear to know what the core issue is and even less how to deal with it.

Far too many commentators see it simply in terms of a confected binary: the so-called inevitable choice between Washington and Beijing. This is as lazy as it is naive. As Allan Gyngell pointed out recently, there is no Australian future in which China will not be central. The point, of course, is that we are dealing with Australia’s future, not just whether China is central—or the place of the US, for that matter.

To chart our future with China, we need to act decisively in the national interest. But to do that, we need to know what ‘the national interest’ is. Well may Morrison fall back on ‘our comprehensive strategic partnership’ in dealing with Dutton’s incursion into foreign policy. Yet without a sharp understanding of the national interest, these are nothing more than marketing doover-words masking puzzlement and panic.

The expression ‘the national interest’ is a term of art that brings together identity and power. We remain uncertain about our identity, about who we are, just as we are uncertain about what we stand for—our values. This in part explains why Morrison defaulted to the Chinese ethnic race card in dealing with Liu’s problems. It also explains why immigrant Australia (that’s most of us) has such difficulty in coming to terms with the rights and status of the first Australians.

We are diffident about our national power, too. In terms of the elements of national power identified by Hans Morgenthau, Australia has a significant amount of it. For reasons of history and culture, however, we lack the confidence to assert our power and often to accept even that we have it. Once we truly appreciate ‘the national interest’ in terms of identity and power, we will be able to prosecute our national interests—the goals that give purpose and direction to public policy in the broad.

We occupy a continent. We are resource rich. We have an educated and skilled population. We are largely tolerant and cohesive (though the race dog-whistle is blown rather too frequently—a sure sign of uncertainty and anxiety). We are resilient. And until the past few years, we have exercised a confident and effective diplomacy.

We should always remember Morgenthau’s comment: ‘The quality of a nation’s diplomacy combines those different factors [of national power] into an integrated whole, gives them direction and weight, and awakens their slumbering potentialities by giving them the breadth of actual power.’

China’s interest in Australia reflects the fact that we do have power, even if we can’t come to terms with the nature and extent of our power, and that we do have many things, from resources to intellectual property, to which it would like access. Cultural, political and societal differences notwithstanding, Australia and China share an economic future that will support the ongoing prosperity and security of both parties.

This is precisely why we need to replace anxiety and fear with confidence and optimism. We need to reinvest in a significantly more engaged diplomacy that eschews mud-slinging and name-calling, not just with China but also with all the nations of the Indo-Pacific region. But to do that, we need to know who we are and what we stand for.

Diplomacy is considered, deliberate, intelligent, patient and tactful. It is also difficult, relentless and often unrewarding as we deal with nations that are as susceptible to anxiety as we are. Diplomacy is much less about shared values than it is about shared interests.

It’s high time that ministers were more precise in articulating what they mean by terms like ‘strategic’, ‘values’ and ‘partnership’. The currency of diplomacy is precision. The current retreat behind persiflage and platitudes reveals the absence of policy. Knee-jerk pronouncements might excite the political junkies, but what is needed right now is calm planning and the careful use of language.

Strength lies in clarity of purpose and determination, not slogans. It’s on that basis that we should be building our relationships with China, the US and everyone else.