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  • Mike Lyons

AUSTRALIA - CHOOSING BETWEEN USA & CHINA


Summary

China’s inexorable progress makes it an indispensable partner for Australia’s future success.

Australia’s reliance on the ANZUS Treaty gives rise to an unreliable sense of security.

There is no evidence of China as a hegemonic threat or that it seeks to impose its ideology on Australia.

It is overwhelmingly in Australia’s interests to embrace its relationship with China.

The Issues and the Dilemma

There is no more important issue for Australia than to get its relationship with China right. How should Australia manage the relationship between USA, our “strategic ally”, and China, our most important trading relationship? Sooner or later, Australia may have to choose.

Australia has always relied for its security on the protection of a great power. At the commencement of the 20th Century, it was Great Britain. As the British Empire was drained by the cost of WWII, Australia’s policy of strategic dependence transferred to USA. This led to the ANZUS Treaty, concluded at the end of the War. The dilemma facing Australia is well captured by Malcolm Fraser in his book, Dangerous Allies[1] published only a few years before his death.

China is by far Australia’s most important trading relationship. The numbers are staggering, whether relating to exports of iron ore, coal, wine, dairy products or to services such as tourism and education. Australia would struggle to weather the consequences if China were to cut or significantly reduce its trade with Australia.

And yet, Beijing’s response, following the May 2019 re-election of the Morrison government was to accuse Australia of treating China with “bias and suspicion”. China’s media reported testily that the Prime Minister had referred to US as a “friend” and China, only patronisingly, as a “customer”.

On 10 June 2019, newly elected Labour leader, Anthony Albanese followed the same theme: “The US is our most important ally -----China is an important trading partner.”[2] Earlier in May this year, Paul Keating aired concerns (in typically colourful Keating language referring to “nutters”) about the Australian Security agencies having disproportionate input into Australian foreign policy, thus placing Australia’s relationship with the PRC at risk. Albanese was more cautious saying that it was not in Australia’s economic interest to be xenophobic when it comes to China. Talk about patronising! One can only wonder how that comment would have gone down in China!

Australia has always regarded itself as part of the liberal, democratic West. We see our “values” as being aligned with US. And yet, we are located geographically in the Asia Pacific region where Australia’s greatest economic interests and opportunities lie. Despite that, the common Australian view is that China represents a threat to Australia’s security.

The strategic competition between US and China places Australia in an invidious position – how to choose. How not to offend either of our great and powerful friends. Thus far, our aim has been to convince Washington that we support it against China, and to convince Beijing that we do not. This is a policy of “systematic duplicity”[3]. No one is fooled.

Hugh White contends that Australia will inevitably find itself in an Asia dominated by China, where America plays little strategic role.

Relying on the US Alliance

Australia’s reliance on its security relationships, first with Britain and then with US has come at enormous cost. The Gallipoli campaign cost 8709 Australian lives. We sent 60,000 Australians to Vietnam. More than 500 never returned. More than 3000 were wounded. After Vietnam, Australia followed USA into two more wars, with Iraq and Afghanistan. The lessons of Vietnam had not been learned.

Despite Australia’s reliance on the ANZUS Treaty, it is nothing more than a Treaty to consult. It is not a guarantee of American support. The fact that successive Australian governments speak of ANZUS as if it were a guarantee of American support is both deceptive and misleading. It is nothing like NATO. The dangerous misinterpretation of the ANZUS Treaty has led Australia, almost blindly to follow US foreign policy in the mistaken belief that America would always respond to a call for help.

Malcolm Fraser saw our relationship with the United States as paradoxical. As he put it, Australia’s leaders argue that we need to keep our alliance with US strong, to ensure our defence in the event of an aggressive foe. Yet the most likely reason that Australia would need to confront an aggressive foe is our strong alliance with the United States. We need America for defence from an attacker who is likely to attack us because we use America for defence![4]

Japan has launched a defence policy to enhance its own security due to its fears that despite its alliance relationship, Washington would not spill American blood to defend Japan.[5] In October 2018, a joint infrastructure MOU was signed between the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and China Development Bank, with China unreservedly signing on to all of Japan’s principles of transparency, debt sustainability and the rule of law[6]. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2019, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien called on USA to make the necessary adjustments to China’s rise and aspirations and other South East Asian nations spoke of the BRI as a great development opportunity for the region[7].

Notwithstanding repeated pleas from Winston Churchill for American aid during World War II, America failed to act, and it entered the war, only after being attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor. With this US history, (including the US failure to stop Russia’s intervention in Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine, as well as America’s lack of leadership in the Syrian Civil War), can Australia seriously rely on America to come to its aid, and to spill American blood, in the unlikely event of hostility from any of its Asian neighbours.

In a speech by Australia’s former Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans on 2 December 2018, he argued that “Neither we nor anyone else in the region should be under any illusion that --- the US will be there for us militarily in any circumstances where it does not also see its own immediate interests being under some threat.”

The USA Conflict with China

Martin Wolf (Chief economics commentator at Financial Times, London)[8] writes that on many points in the US trade dispute with China, the Chinese positions are correct, and that the US focus on imbalances in trade is “economically illiterate”. Wolf argues that the US effort to stop China’s economic and technological rise is almost certain to fail. One might ask what the consequences might be, should these US succeed in bringing China to its knees. The potential global economic consequences would be nothing short of catastrophic.

Claims of unfair practices, theft of intellectual property (and forced transfers of technology in commercial dealings) and espionage are levelled at China, predominantly by the US media, every day. There are repeated allegations that China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a “debt trap”. It is argued that China has violated its commitments to the WTO. China is said to be increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea. These ubiquitous, but unsubstantiated claims, accusations and allegations are repeated with such regularity that they begin to take on the mantle of truth.

Technology

China’s technological ability has soared. Only recently, China succeeded in landing a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon. Huawei is a leading global technology giant.

Washington is doing everything it can to slow down China’s technological advance, putting pressure on its allies to ban Huawei from their 5G networks on “national security grounds”. However, few of such allies have thus far agreed to ban Huawei[9]. Australia has. In May 2019, USA blacklisted Huawei, accusing it of assisting China in its espionage activities. And yet, only days later, President Trump stated that Huawei could become part of a US-China trade deal. This raises the question whether there is any substance to America’s claimed fears that Huawei might assist China in its espionage activities, or is this merely an American ruse to undermine this technological giant as part of the US trade war with China?

China may hit back. It accounts for almost 80% of the global supply of “rare earths”, a group of 17 obscure minerals which are essential for use in smartphones, lasers, MRI machines, electric cars and other high-tech devices. China has threatened to restrict the export of rare earths to the US, a highly credible threat as it would take many years for the US to develop substitute supplies.

China Power

China’s increased military expenditure is unsurprising for a great and rising power. However, China’s defence expenditure does not begin to compare with that of USA. China has only 250 nuclear warheads compared with America’s 7,700. In a nuclear exchange China would be severely damaged, but America’s losses would be unimaginable. China, with its limited nuclear power could potentially destroy the heart of a dozen major US cities. It would be little consolation to US that China might lose 100 cities or even 100 million people[10]. America is likely to have much less capacity to withstand loss than China, and as Malcolm Fraser observed, the biggest factor in such an exchange, would be China’s capacity to endure hardship of the order endured by Vietnam.

Thus far, China has avoided unnecessary wars. Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, USA and United Kingdom), China is the only one that has not fired a single military shot across its border in 30 years[11].

China is accused of assertiveness and willingness to pressure countries economically. There is nothing new or surprising about a global power using it's muscle. Consider Great Britain’s 19th century colonisation of much of the world, and the more recent willingness of USA to use coercion, to impose sanctions virtually at will, and to seek to overthrow governments to bring about regime change in various jurisdictions including, for example Iraq, Syria and most recently Venezuela. China’s militarisation of pockets of the South China Sea can be described as consistent with defensive action taken against the threats imposed by USA’s prolific military installations in the region, not to mention its freedom of navigation patrols. It is arguable that, having regard to China’s geography, its leadership would be grossly irresponsible were it not to take defensive measures in the South China Sea. China’s defence Minister has warned that its military will act to protect Beijing’s claim in the South China Sea, defending China’s right to build defence facilities in this Sea[12].

China Russia Relations

As Gideon Rachman[13] reminds the reader, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia initially looked West – but was rebuffed and treated with disdain. Since then, Russia increasingly sees its future as lying in the East. The growing strategic closeness of China and Russia is emphasised by their joint naval and military exercises in the Mediterranean, the East China Sea, the Baltic Sea, and in September 2018, when 300,000 Russian and Chinese soldiers participated in land, sea and air exercises in Siberia and elsewhere.

In June 2019, China and Russia agreed on a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era. They spoke of cooperation in economy, trade, investment, energy, technology, aerospace, agriculture and finance and importantly, they referred to their intention to “continue working with the international community to safeguard the international order”. Their leaders talked of cooperation regarding the BRI as well as the Eurasian Economic Union, to promote regional economic integration[14].

Australia’s Shared Values?

Australia continues to cling to our shared values with our long-standing US “ally and friend”. At the same time, we watch in horror, the frequent murders of schoolchildren, thanks to America’s constitutionally sanctioned gun laws. Who can ignore America’s wholesale withdrawal from international treaties? Vice President Pence is widely regarded as having launched a new cold war in his belligerent speech on 4 October 2018.

What values, one might ask does Australia really share with America? Democracies are not all one and the same. The US system has allowed an authoritarian demagogue to hold the American reins of power. Britain has been saddled with Brexit. Hungary, Russia and France are all “democracies” – but they each have widely differing forms of democracy.

In How Democracy Ends, Runciman[15] quotes the economist, Joseph Schumpeter’s, where he defined democracy as a competition between teams of salesmen to get the voters to buy their product. Critics of democracy, starting with Plato have argued that it means ruling by the ignorant. As Runciman put it, there are echoes of this in the Brexit aftermath. Somewhat cynically, but perhaps realistically, he observes that democracy puts power in the hands of people who do not know what they are doing. A recent (2018) Lowy Institute poll found that less than half of Australians aged under 45 agree that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”.

China’s “Post-democracy”

In an insightful book, When Trees Fall, Monkeys Scatter (2018), Sydney academic, John Keane[16] challenges the assumption that “liberal democracy” is the highest standard by which Chinese politics is to be measured. He argues that democracy “made in China” may well survive and thrive. Keane points out that China has borrowed some useful elements of Western democracy and combined them with China’s 5000-year-old culture and civilisation. He refers to the Chinese system as ‘post-democracy’ and he suggests that the China model could be a higher form of democracy, mainly because its leaders are selected on merit.

Australia may not be remotely ready to abandon democracy (nor should we) but a more objective assessment of the Chinese model would not be out of place.

What kind of threat does China really pose to Australia’s fundamental values. How seriously are our values threatened by the fact that China’s political system is different? Hugh White asks the question: Is the prospect of an Asia dominated by China bad enough to justify fighting a major war? What we fear (speculate) is that China plans to impose a harsh and oppressive hegemony which would force fundamental changes to Australia’s political system, social order and economic prospects. There is no evidence of this. China’s territorial ambitions seem to be limited to the lands that China already occupies or claims, including Taiwan – but there is no evidence of any desire to proselytise an ideology or to export their political system.[17]

Conclusion

Australia’s continuing reliance on USA as its great and powerful security ally is misguided, potentially dangerous and fails to recognise the limitations of the USA alliance.

USA’s efforts to impede China’s rise will almost certainly fail. Australia’s future wellbeing in the Asia Pacific region depends on drawing closer to and engaging more openly with China, treating it as a “partner”, not merely a convenient customer.

China’s political system has proven to be successful and has merit. Merely because it differs from the Western liberal democracies does not make it threatening or dangerous.

There is no evidence that China seeks to impose its political ideology on Australia, now or in the future.

[1] Malcolm Fraser – Dangerous Allies (published 2014)

[2] Australia-China Relations Institute – June 2019

[3] Hugh White, professor of Strategic Studies, ANU-Without America, Quarterly Essay Issue 68/ 2017

[4] Fraser Ch 12

[5] Stratfor 3 June 2019, reporting on Japan’s Hith-Tech Militarization

[6] EastAsiaForum 9 June 2019

[7] Ibid

[8] Opinion piece “Prepare for the 100-year War between the US and China – Financial Times, London 5 June 2019

[9] The Economist 8 June 2019

[10] Hugh White - Ibid

[11] Kishor Mahbubani, What Chia Threat – Harper’s Magazine, 6 February 2019

[12] The Australian – 2 June 2019

[13] Easternisation by Gideon Rachman published 2017

[14] Beijing Review 6 June 2019

[15] David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, published 2018

[16] John Keane is professor of politics at University of Sydney

[17] Hugh White, Ibid


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