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  • Writer's pictureMike Lyons


Australia’s “National Interest”

Ever since Scott Morrison became Prime Minister of Australia in August 2018, the China-Australia relationship has been experiencing a precipitous collapse. Not long ago, Australia did not have to choose between USA and China. Those days are over. Australia has chosen USA. The Chinese leadership has described Australia as America’s “loyal attack dog”. Australia’s growing fear of China and talk about an “invasion” has led the Morrison government to actively seek to encourage American engagement in the region.

Morrison constantly invokes Australia’s “National Interest”, reminding his audience that Australia will not “compromise its sovereignty”. However, Australia’s sovereignty and national interest are directly related to its economic prosperity. Australia’s profitable trade with the PRC over the past 30 years has buttressed its sovereignty. As it became obvious towards the end of the 20th century that China will be the most important focus of economic growth in Asia, Paul Keating suggested that Australia should seek security in Asia, not from Asia.

Morrison relies on advisers, known for their hawkish views about Beijing, and seeing China through a lens of threat, fear, and anxiety. Australia’s national security establishment has effectively taken over Australian policy to the detriment of the nation’s economy. In 2019, outgoing ASIO chief, Duncan Lewis talked of Chinese espionage and foreign interference constituting an existential threat to Australia. Against that, former Secretary of the Department of Defence, Dennis Richardson warned that the “National-security cowboys” were endangering the country’s interests, while Angus Houston, chief of the Australian Defence Force from 2005-2011 maintains that “China is Australia’s partner, not an enemy.” Australia needs to find a position in which it is not beholden to the paranoid vision of its security agencies.[i]

Managing the China relationship is the most important diplomatic challenge Australia has faced, yet Morrison imagines that Australia can unilaterally set the terms of the relationship. That is absurd!

Australia Leading the Challenge Against China

Morrison met with other leaders attending the recent G7 conference, proclaiming that the challenge was “nothing less than to reinforce, renovate and buttress a world order that favours freedom”. Other Western countries have been more cautious and have avoided antagonising China. Disturbingly, there are reports that Morrison believes that God has personally sent him “signs” and was responsible for his election victory in 2019. He was “called to do God’s work” as Australia’s leader. Australia is a secular society. It is dangerous for any politician to believe their views (especially in respect of war) are divinely sanctioned. This man leads a nation which has enjoyed many years of relative safety, peace and prosperity. In his short time in office, he has almost single-handedly brought Australia’s relationship with China to its knees, treating China as an adversary instead of its most valued trading partner, and putting Australia’s peaceful relationship with China at grave risk.

In a recent damning assessment, Geoff Raby[ii] observed that the G7-plus meeting had highlighted the abject failure of Australia’s reckless foreign policy approach to China. Among the 11 nations present, only Australia had no official contact with China. According to Raby, Australia went to the meeting with no strategies other than photo opportunities and Australia demonstrated to the participants that its government was incapable of managing a complex relationship with China in the way the others could.

The G7 is a Western based order which does not even include India or China, two of the world’s great economies. There are predictions that China’s GDP will surpass that of the US by 2028 or even 2026. If there is to be anything like a global order in the 21st century it is unlikely to be American or Western dominated. To exclude China, India, Russia, and the European Union renders the G7 largely irrelevant and impotent. A new and powerful R5 (Representative 5) is needed, made up of today’s major global powers, USA, China, Russia, India, and the EU. Such an organisation would be representative, not only of the world’s greatest economic and military powers but, it would also provide the opportunity for the 21st Century’s differing political systems to come together and to engage in real and meaningful dialogue.

Beijing Bites Back

In late 2020, Beijing’s ambassador to Australia referred to multiple disputes with Australia. These included Australia’s antagonistic commentary about China, banning Chinese tech giant, Huawei from Australia’s 5G network, and later unilaterally calling for an enquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic pushing the already strained relationship closer to the cliff’s edge. China’s mouthpiece, the Global Times warned that Australia had $153 billion of reasons not to pick a fight with China! China advised its students to think twice before going to “racist and dangerous” Australia, and it imposed tariffs on many Australian products. When Australian ministers called to talk to their Chinese counterparts, the Chinese refused to pick up the phone.

In late 2020, Australia’s Stan Grant reminded his audience that China’s rise had been peaceful. It had joined up to the global rules-based order, becoming a member of the WTO, the WHO, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. China is a global superpower and yet Australia has placed itself in China’s crosshairs. As Paul Kelly remarked, “This country has no national interest in making China our enemy.” Australia’s national interest demands that it re-establish and stabilise its ties with China. To pretend that Australia is the innocent party in this cratering relationship is a “self-deluding fallacy”. If Australia fails to reset its relationship with China, it risks one of the gravest national interest failures in Australian history. As Craig Emerson noted, “A great coupling, initiated by the Hawke and Keating governments, is threatening to become a great decoupling” and Australia now risks being sucked into (if not actually promoting) a conflict between the US and China.

Australia’s Neighbours Adopt a More Diplomatic and Nuanced Tone

Following Morrison’s meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern in May 2021, he sought to emphasise the close ties between the two countries. However, the New Zealand Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta made it clear that New Zealand made its own decisions on how to manage its national interest, and where New Zealand disagreed with China, it raised these issues privately with China. The Global Times praised the Ardern administration for its “political wisdom and sobriety” and its “more peaceful and friendly” stance.

New Zealand’s quieter diplomatic approach, in contrast to Australia’s outspoken challenges shows a mature desire not to damage relations with its largest trading partner. While Beijing has imposed damaging trade restrictions on many Australian products, the same has not applied to New Zealand which prefers “quiet diplomacy over megaphone diplomacy”. Morrison appears unrepentant while playing to his Australian domestic audience, and arguing that liberal democracies need to align more on security issues and intelligence in opposing “authoritarian” countries.

The Morrison government can no longer afford to ignore the reality that New Zealand’s tone has much in common with most other Asian countries which have also adopted a nuanced position towards the rivalry between the US and China. They prefer to maintain good relationships with both the US and China. Whilst Washington and Australia see China as a threat, Southeast Asians generally accept China as an important partner for their future development.

War Talk

Australia’s support for the US locks it firmly into rivalry with China. Defence hawks lobby for Australia to acquire intermediate range ballistic missiles capable of hitting China. Australia plans to direct $270 billion to military spending in the coming decade, shedding any pretence that this is not aimed at China, and increasing the likelihood of confrontation.

Adopting irresponsible, warmongering talk, Defence Minister, Peter Dutton said he did not think a military conflict over Taiwan could be discounted and Home Affairs Secretary, Michael Pezzullo went further talking of the “beating drums of war”. Linda Javin quotes a Korean proverb “When two whales quarrel it’s the shrimp’s back that gets broken”, and she warns that in the event of a conflict between China and the US, “This little Australian shrimp had better have a plan”.

In 2003, the US with UK, Australia, and Poland went to war with Iraq. It turned out that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction. The war led to the rise of ISIS and resulted in devastating destabilisation of the Middle East.

The “special relationship” with the US featured prominently, in Britain and Australia’s decision to commit troops to the Iraq invasion. Both Britain and Australia privately committed troops to the invasion, long before any such commitment was even considered by the Cabinet. The Iraq war led to calls for the reform of Australia’s War Powers, but both sides of politics have resisted change even though there have been changes in the UK, Canada, Ireland, South Africa, the US, and the Netherlands – but not Australia.[iii]

Australian sovereignty has been compromised, not by China, but by its relationship with the US. Based on past experience and Australia’s current overt posture, if America goes to war with China, Australia’s elected representatives will have no ability to debate whether or not Australia joins in.[iv]

In 2017, Hugh White wrote[v] that in a war with China, America’s losses would be unimaginably large. China’s small nuclear forces could destroy the centre of a dozen major US cities and kill perhaps one million people. It would be small consolation for America even if China lost 100 cities. How, in those circumstances would Australia fare? White’s paper was written four years ago. Since then, China has continued to rise exponentially whilst America has continued to decline.

In a democracy, there can be no greater question for the public than whether or not the nation should commit to war. Not engaging the nation would be equivalent to a complete abandonment of the democratic process and the principles upon which democracy is based. That is what Australia might now face.

[i] David Brophy, China Panic 2021 [ii] Raby is a former Australian ambassador to China. His recent book, China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s Future in the New Global Order, was published in 2021 [iii] Judith Betts, The Iraq War and Democratic Governance 2021 [iv] Brophy-Ibid [v] Without America, Quarterly Essay, 2017

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