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  • Mike Lyons


There has been constant discussion about whether Australia needs to choose between its ally, United States of America or China, its major trading partner.

Make no mistake, Australia has chosen and its clear choice is USA.

Observing Australian leaders pandering to the whim of USA leaves no doubt about it. Not for China, nor for anyone else.

The dictionary definition of “ally” is “a state formally cooperating with another for a military or other purpose”. The application of that definition leaves no wriggle room -no room for pretence and no room for neutrality.

During a 2019 visit to Australia, John Mearsheimer (a respected author and political scientist at the University of Chicago) argued that Australia could no longer sit on the fence. It had to choose. But he went much further suggesting, somewhat chillingly, that if Australia were to choose China, then it would be “our (America’s) enemy”. He was wrong. Australia does not have to choose and if it chooses neither China nor USA, it is inconceivable that Australia would be regarded as an enemy of either. In his book, The Great Delusion[1], Mearsheimer writes “the world is too dangerous to let protecting the rights of others come at the expense of one’s own security”. He adds “It is difficult to get Americans to fight and die solely to protect the rights of other peoples”.

My Recent Visit to China

I visited China in September 2019. In addition to seeing the Great Wall, the famous Pandas and the Terracotta Warriors, visiting modern China was a remarkable experience. City populations in excess of 20 million were not unusual, peaking at about 34 million in Chongqing. The immensity and the number of apartment buildings – all modern constructions, was breathtaking, as were the many new and efficient airports, the extensive road systems and the amazing high-speed trains. The quality of each hotel was as good as the best I have ever seen. Travelling to Shanghai, we landed at Pudong – the Shanghai financial district. This enormous district, its developments, infrastructure and accommodation did not even exist when I last visited nearly 30 years ago – it was nothing but bare open space. Today, it is the Manhattan of China boasting many magnificent, towering office blocks including the tallest in China. Staying at the Waldorf Astoria, I looked directly across the famous Bund with its magnificently preserved buildings from the early 1900s. The promenade was wide and paved – and crowded, but well maintained without a speck of dirt.

Stories in the West about the Chinese “firewall” are true. Even in the fanciest of five-star hotels, I could not access the Washington Post, NY Times, the Guardian or even the Australian Financial Review (although I did manage to get access to The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald). Locals whom I spoke to seem to know how to get around this. Most were proudly National, and happy to go along with the system. From their perspective it works successfully – and this, for them is more important than “freedom”.

On my last day I was taken by a private guide to visit the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Centre, located in a nondescript building. It contained a large, colourful and arguably controversial exhibition of the 20th century history of China. Although I was told that this was a “secret” place, their own brochure referred to the Centre as being ranked by TripAdvisor as number 5 out of the 25 most popular museums in China – so much for secrecy.

Australia’s Unreliable Reliance on USA

In a speech on 29 October 2019, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Marise Payne observed that in an era of strategic change, the US alliance remained “more important to us than ever.” She went on to add: "the US has a record unmatched in modern times of leading an international system aimed at benefiting all people, not just its own,” and she added, “that is still the case”!

On the same day as the Foreign Affairs Minister’s speech, Geoff Raby (former Australian ambassador to China) talked about the Australia-China relationship being at its lowest point since diplomatic relations began 46 years ago. He referred to the “China Threat” having been used to justify one of Australia’s more spectacular “own goals in foreign policy” when it introduced a blanket ban on the Chinese telecoms company, Huawei’s participating 5G network. According to Raby, the “China Threat” narrative in Australia has led to Australia viewing Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as an attempt to impose a Sino-Centric order on the world even though 152 countries, including 18 in Europe had signed a Memorandum of Understanding to participate in the BRI. He referred to Australia’s counter-productive “megaphone diplomacy” including criticisms aimed at Hong Kong and China’s human rights issues, concluding that “It is time for diplomats to be put back in charge of our foreign policy on China.”

The Asia Times recently reported that a prominent Republican called America’s 5G strategy “the biggest strategic disaster in US history”[2]. The following day, the same paper reported that “There is a general agreement in Washington that 5G is going to be a commercial success and a national security disaster. And “If the US does not find a way out of the morass, the consequences will be grim.”

Minister Payne’s statement that “The US has a record unmatched in modern times of leading an international system aimed at benefiting all people, not just its own” is incomprehensible in light of recent events. The Sydney Morning Herald reported, only a few days earlier about a “blistering attack” by Australia’s Ambassador to US, Joe Hockey, referring to US isolationist policies and to the US having made several major economic mistakes in recent years, adding “If you abdicate leadership you rarely get it back.” Hockey talked of the US having “walked away from its own leadership” by abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership and suggesting that the US should have followed Australia’s lead and joined the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank which was initiated by China. As if that was not enough, in early November 2019, the US officially announced its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.

Only weeks before Minister Payne’s speech, the US announced its decision to withdraw troops from Syria, a decision which met with almost universal condemnation and accusations of the US having abandoned its Kurdish allies. In Washington, both political parties criticised the Administration’s actions. The Economist magazine[3] made no bones about it - “The President’s decision has also left American allies around the world newly worried that they too could be left in the wind, just as the Kurds have been. It has put new strains on NATO.”

Stratfor Worldview reported in June 2019 that “Tokyo has growing fears that Washington, whose power is in decline, will not come to Japan’s defence in case of an attack” and “There are increasing concerns that Washington, if push comes to shove, will not spill American blood to defend Japan.” Japanese leaders had witnessed America’s non-action in the wake of the Obama administration’s declaration that the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” resulting in US intervention. It did not intervene!

The “China Threat” to Australia

In the ongoing debate about Australia’s choice, Hugh White[4] argues that if Australia were to adopt a neutral position, that would not make it an enemy of either China or USA. He contends that “There is nothing in China’s policies or attitudes today to suggest that it might use force against us (Australia)”. However, that could change if Australia actively supported America in a contest with China. “China is determined to establish its primacy in this region and would quite likely use force against Australia if we supported a serious rival, such as America” - “an ill-judged choice by Australia to align with China’s enemies would make us one of China’s enemies too.” It must be remembered that the ANZUS Treaty is only a commitment to consult, not necessarily to take up arms in defence of Australia. America would have to ask itself whether defending allies (including Taiwan or even Australia) was vital enough to justify risking a Chinese retaliatory nuclear attack on American territory – “an attack that could devastate a number of US cities and kill hundreds of thousands, or millions, of Americans[5].

Can Australia realistically continue to regard its alliance with US as more important than ever, or even reliable?

As former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser argued[6] “Our leaders argue that we need to keep our alliance with US strong in order 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.”

We are no longer in the 20th century when Australia depended initially on its strategic ally, the United Kingdom and later, in 1941 switched its allegiance and correspondingly its dependence to the USA. It is a historical fact that Australia’s allegiance and loyalty to these powerful nations has cost tens of thousands of young Australian lives.

In an opinion piece[7], Geoff Raby makes the point that Australia’s China policy requires rigorous discussion about the core assumptions which underlie Australia’s “China Threat” scenario. He refers to the untested assumption of China as a strategic threat to Australia which dominates policy circles in Canberra, and he points to the extent to which Australia’s intelligence, security and defence establishment is running Australia’s China foreign policy.

As Allan Gyngell observes[8] “We need to be calm in the face of some of the hyperventilation and wild claims about China.” Further, “it is not the Orwellian dystopia portrayed in some Western commentary. Beijing is not taking over the developing world through debt-trap diplomacy.”

It is worth recalling Paul Keating’s colourful comments - “When the security agencies are running foreign policy, the nutters are in charge”. Unsurprisingly, his observations met with mixed reactions, but Australia can ill afford to disregard what he says. Keating has not changed his position. More recently, he is reported[9] to have said “The subtleties of foreign policy and the elasticity of diplomacy are being supplanted by the phobias of a group of national security agencies which are now effectively running the foreign policy of the country.” He added “The Australian media has been recreant in its duty to the public in failing to present a balanced picture of the rise, legitimacy and importance of China.”

In an opinion piece entitled “I am afraid of Americans”[10], Mike Scrafton writes (referring to a paper[11] by Peter Jennings’[12]) that Jennings is part of an incessant campaign for an increase in defence spending by Australia, and doing even more to build Australia’s military presence in the region, suggesting that China presents the biggest strategic threat to global stability. Jennings argues that “A new cold war with China is playing out in all but name.” However, Scrafton points to a recent PEW survey which found that the US was regarded as a bigger global security threat than China in countries as widespread as France, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, the UK as well as in African and Latin American countries.

Russia and China

Despite much Western wishful thinking about the hoped for failure of the Russia-China relationship, a recent Lowy Institute paper[13] reports that in October 2019, Putin confirmed that China and Russia had forged a multi-dimensional alliance in economics, politics and defence, and that this announcement “confounds the many observers who refused to accept it as a possibility and (the announcement) significantly transforms the stakes not just in Asia, but in global politics.” The paper sounds a despairing note about what all this means for the rest of the world and it talks about the often repeated, but unsubstantiated concerns of China’s systematic efforts to “blanket Australia with information penetration, subversion and influence operations” saying “it is likely to generate an increase in the scope and breadth of threats to Australia’s vital and long-standing interests.” Another Lowy Institute paper[14] reports that “as part of a military cooperation and interoperability with South Africa, Russia will later this month take part in an inaugural South African, Russian and Chinese naval exercise hosted by South Africa in Cape Waters, focused on the safety of shipping and Maritime economic activity.”

Australian Values and Interests

A United States Studies Centre[15] paper, suggests that more public discussion is needed about the challenges associated with China’s rise saying that “in the absence of clear explanations of how Beijing’s actions threaten American and Australian values and interests, steps taken to mitigate those challenges will likely appear as either provocative or counter-productive.” The paper claims that although there is an emerging consensus that China presents a challenge to American values and interests, there is less agreement on the exact nature of the challenges! These vague, repetitive, unexplained and unsubstantiated comments about the challenges to Australian and American “values and interests” are unproductive and harmful to any meaningful understanding of China’s rise and America’s decline, what this means, and the opportunities it presents, for Australia. Recognising that China accounts for 30% of Australia’s export market and 31% of Australia’s education exports, this reliance leads many “in the business and education communities in Australia to become some of the biggest advocates of a closer Australia-China relationship.” Australia’s two-way trade with China is greater than the sum of our trade with Japan, the United States and India combined, and he adds “there is no Australian future-sunlit or shadowed-in which China will not be central.”

As Gyngell says[16], we need to be clear about how we define our interests and values. Australia’s liberal democracy, protecting individual rights and free speech under the rule of law, is very different from the authoritarian structure of a Communist Party-state. However, the world of liberal democracies is shrinking. There has been 13 years of consecutive decline in political rights and civil liberties. Many governments with which Australia deals have different values from those of Australia.

Keating referred in his above-mentioned speech to Australia’s unstated proposition that somehow, the rise of China is illegitimate and our concern that it is not a democracy! As Keating remarked, “Well, God help us if we are limited or slated to deal only with democracies. That policy would, without doubt, have lost us the Second World War – for Europe had no chance of being liberated singularly from the West. Twenty-six million Russians died defeating Nazism.” In support of his arguments he reminded his listeners of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s position that “America should tacitly accept the reality of China’s geopolitical pre-eminence on the mainland of Asia, as well as China’s ongoing emergence as the predominant Asian economic power. He referred also to Henry Kissinger’s observation that China’s political culture has deep roots suffused with its own distinctive philosophical concepts – a Confucian China with modern characteristics and he added that the idea that China would adopt a multiparty Western-style democratic structure “was the idea of people ignorant of China’s long history.”

Australia’s Excessive and Wasteful Defence Spending

White’s book has generated great interest. He explores Australia spending much more money on defence so that Australian forces could defend Australia independently. Australia’s annual defence budget is currently close to $40 billion. China spends over eight times as much, and America 20 times. As he says, “we’re going to have to spend a lot more to build the forces we would need as a middle power.” He talks about expenditure of the order of 3.5% of GDP or even 4%.[17] In Chapter 18, White focuses on the cost of actually fighting a major war saying that there is no point building the capacity to fight a major war if we are not willing to pay the cost of fighting one and he adds that the financial cost alone would be perhaps 30 or 40% of GDP for so long as the war lasts. He concludes – “we might well be wasting our money spending any more than we are spending now” - and he adds “it might make better sense to spend a good deal less”.

White does refer to other possibilities such as diplomacy and neutrality but neither of these important subjects is given enough attention.

In an article, The Great Defence Debate We’ve Never Had, (published before the release of White’s book), Mark Beeson[18] reminds the reader that if the Australian government increases defence spending to 2% of GDP by 2020, this will mean a potential spend of the order of $1 trillion on the military over the next two decades. He goes on, somewhat sceptically, to suggest that the weapons already ordered ($50 billion on a submarine deal finalised in February 2019) will be delivered late and won’t work as promised and he suggests that by the time they are delivered they will probably have been rendered redundant by subsequent developments. Beeson observes that there is little consideration of the actual threats that all this spending is designed to deter. While acknowledging that China has become increasingly assertive he makes the realistic observation that if China is not deterred by the unmatched military might of the United States, why is it going to be checked by Australia’s defence forces. He adds “Even if war does erupt between the United States and China, could all of Australia’s military assets make the slightest actual difference to the outcome? Clearly not. Why then do we continue to pour scarce resources into weapons that make little difference to the real challenges we face? Not to mention compromising our strategic and foreign-policy independence for the sake of the alliance with the United States.”

Gyngell reminds the reader[19] that the Australian government recently established a National Foundation for Australia-China Relations but although it is a welcome initiative, its total expenditure is only $44 million over five years in contrast to the enormous $40 billion spent annually on Australian defence.

Marianne Hanson[20] writes that there has not been a broad ranging input about what threats really exist. She suggests that nothing other than “group think” prevails amongst “somewhat privileged, invariably white and predominantly male” expert panels. For her, the most troubling element of White’s analysis was his call for Australia to increase its defence spending to something like $70 or even $80 billion per year. Unsurprisingly, Hanson suggests “imagine investing that in renewable energy, in mitigating climate change, in our hospitals and schools or in our diplomatic and peace building programs.” She acknowledges the growth of Chinese power and influence in our region but asks whether this “automatically means that China will target its nuclear, or other, weapons against us”. Her undergraduate students are frustrated by what they see as our “leaders fiddling while our country burns” and she adds her students “see China as an opportunity rather than a threat”.

Three Reasons to Rethink Australian Attitudes

There are three main reasons for Australia to reconsider and to reposition its posture in its relationships with China and USA.

Firstly, Australia is geographically located in Asia. With its ever-increasing migration from and business dealings with Asia, it is becoming more Asian. During an interview with Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, he is reported[21] to have said that “Whatever white Australians might think of it, the fact is geographically they are more in the Asian region than in Europe” and “In the future, they are going to be more Asian than European.”

It is easy to understand that with Australia’s colonial history, its long-standing allegiance to and dependence on Great Britain and later USA, it may be difficult to realign its interests. However, alliances do change as do circumstances. Sweeping global changes, including America’s decline, China’s rise and the movement to Eurasia as the global centre, demand a meaningful and realistic reassessment of Australian attitudes and relationships. No one suggests that Australia should take sides against or sever our relationship with America but to continue to cling to America as its “ally” is dangerous and contrary to its national interests.

Secondly, Australia’s economy is heavily tied to and dependent on China. It is all very well contending that Australia should reduce its dependence on trade with China but the reality is that Australia has little alternative and there is no other country or group of countries that offer possible alternatives. Clearly, Australia’s economic interests are served by preserving and enhancing it trade and business opportunities with China. Although Australia frets about China’s influence in and interference with Australia, Australia’s constant criticisms of and interference in China’s internal affairs unnecessarily provoke China and risk damaging Australia’s economic relationship with China.

Thirdly, China has emerged as a genuine Superpower, both economically and militarily – it is not beatable nor is it realistically containable by USA. In a paper published in the AFA Weekly on 7 August 2019, Jonathan Pearlman[22] reported on a discussion involving US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo and Hugh White in which Pompeo, referred disgracefully to Australia’s “choice between soybeans and security”. White saw matters differently - “The choice is whether or not it makes sense to back an America that is starting a Cold War that it has no capacity to win.” As Paul Keating stated[23], “After United States wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it has to accept that war on the Asian mainland is unwinnable and that the shape of Asia cannot be cast by a non-Asian power – including by the application of US military force.”

[1] The Great Delusion, by John Mearsheimer Ch5, published 2018

[2] Asia Times 4 November 2019

[3] 19 October 2019

[4] How to Defend Australia, published 2019

[5] Ibid Ch 15

[6] Dangerous Allies, published 2014

[7] Financial Review 19 August 2019

[8] Australian Foreign Affairs (AFA) 7 October 2019

[9] Keating’s speech on 18 November 2019 as reported in The Australian

[10] published July 2019

[11] 13 July 2019

[12] Jennings is the executive director of ASPI (Australian Strategic Policy Institute) and a former deputy secretary for strategy in the Australian department of defence

[13] The Sino-Russian alliance and what it means for Australia, published 5 November 2019

[14] Russia’s Southern Strategy 12 November 2019

[15] The Future of the US-Australian Alliance in and era of Great Power Competition, 13 June 2019

[16] AFA 7 October 2019

[17] White Ch 17

[18] Professor of Political Science and International Relations at University of Western Australia – article published 10 March 2019

[19] AFA 7 Oct 2019

[20] Dr Hanson is associate Prof of International Relations, University of Queensland – paper published 10 July 2019 AIIA

[21] Sydney Morning Herald 4 November 2019

[22] Editor of Australian Foreign Affairs

[23] Paul Keating speech on 18 November 2019 – see Note 9

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