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China: supporting fourth column or subversive fifth column?

Posted By on June 22, 2016 @ 11:00

Image courtesy of Flickr user coba

The journalist questions in the Oz election debate on foreign policy started with the South China Sea and ended on China’s suppression of internal dissent.

As with the defence debate last week, China throbs.

In the National Press Club debate between Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, and Labor’s shadow Foreign Minister, Tanya Plibersek, China got more questions than the Middle East or foreign aid or the dangers of Britain exiting Europe.

The bipartisan tone of the defence debate echoed in foreign affairs. Plibersek pointed to the common ground between the major parties on what Labor calls the three pillars: the US alliance, international institutions and engagement with Asia, now rendered as the Indo–Pacific.

I’d stretch the metaphor to say China has become a tacit fourth column; it’s big and impressive and holds up much of Asia’s sky. And then there’s the fear that the fourth column also has some of the hostile or subversive characteristics of a fifth column.

Julie Bishop’s opening statement naturally enough emphasised the positives: ‘There’s huge opportunity for us in Asia where change is exponential. About 20 years ago, less than a fifth of the world’s middle class was in Asia. In ten years time, it’ll be two-thirds.’

Thanks, China, Long may the fourth column hold up the sky.

To get a quick read on the Oz foreign policy debate—such as it is in this election—look at these pieces for the Australian Institute of International Affairs by the Coalition, Labor and the Greens.

Along with the usual political biffo, Labor and the Coalition look at a similar world in familiar ways.

The Greens take you to a different place—and all power to their elbow. Which is one of many reasons why the big two elbow the Greens as much as possible.

The foreign policy debate was between the two sides reaching for government. On that basis, the Liberal and Labor parties can deny the Greens a seat on the stage— denying the Greens anything is another bit of bipartisanship.

Bishop’s piece for the AIIA was most explicit in picking over the danger of China going from fourth column to fifth column.

Asia’s strategic and economic blessings from the 1950s, Bishop wrote, rested on a liberal order ‘underwritten by the uncontested maritime power and reach of the United States.’

The big job now, she said, is to preserve that order. The ‘enormously important issue’ is to ‘ensure that an increasingly powerful China emerges as a responsible and constructive contributor to regional affairs, and eventually assume its rightful place as a regional leader within that order.’

We want that China column to support, not undermine.

The language about China as responsible and constructive and taking its rightful place is familiar; it’s now a few decades old. Yet these days the same words come through gritted teeth with just a hint of shrill desperation.

And so to the China salvos lobbed by the hacks at the Press Club.

As with the defence debate, the first question was about the South China Sea.

Last week, Labor’s Defence shadow, Stephen Conroy, was gung-ho about the need for Australia to sail in and fly over 12 mile zones to challenge China’s ‘absurd building of artificial islands on top of submerged reefs.’

By contrast, Labor’s Tanya Plibersek is more gentle with little gung. She said Labor’s national security committee backed the Conroy approach but the important thing is ‘not to talk these things up in a way to contribute to tension.’

Julie Bishop said Australia wouldn’t be provocative in its approach to China’s 12 mile zones. My translation: Australia’s Navy isn’t going to follow the the US inside those zones just yet.

As Bishop put it: ‘We will continue to traverse the water and the skies around the South China Sea as we have always done. Because for us to change operations now, I believe, would escalate tensions and that would not be in the interest of the claimant countries or our relationships with countries in the region.’

That drew this followup from the chair, Chris Uhlmann: ‘You would tell us if you got within 10 miles wouldn’t you?’

Bishop: ‘The boundary is 12 nautical miles, so if we are 12.1 nautical miles we are still within our standard operational procedure.’

The strongest words on China from the Foreign Minister were on Beijing’s statement that it won’t abide by the decision of the International Court of Justice on the South China Sea:
‘There will be enormous international pressure on China to abide by the findings of the international, rules-based order under which we all exist, that has provided so much stability and security for the globe. And there will be incredible pressure on China. It will do irreparable harm to its reputation if it thumbs its nose at the findings of the arbitration court.’

Lots of pressure in prospect for China.

The problem with a big and important column is that it’s very hard to shift.

Australia prides itself on the strength of its relationship with China and Canberra’s ability to speak directly to Beijing. The test is to be heard or heeded.

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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/china-supporting-fourth-column-subversive-fifth-column/

[1] defence debate: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/amiable-defence-debate-meets-china/

[2] Coalition: http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australian_outlook/australian-foreign-policy-the-coalition-approach/

[3] Labor: http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australian_outlook/australian-foreign-policy-the-alp-approach/

[4] Greens: http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australian_outlook/australian-foreign-policy-the-greens-approach/