We live in an age of unprecedented geopolitical upheaval in the Asia Pacific. The American and Western hegemony in the region appears to be imperilled, with China emerging as the new dominant power; edging its sphere of influence ever outwards.
As time inexorably progresses, the Chinese superpower will further assert its dominance both in Asia, and across the world. China is acting as Britain did in the days of empire, as the Fascist regimes did before Word War II, and as the American’s did after it. As it becomes more militarily powerful and expands economically, China will seek additional: economic, political and territorial control in the region and beyond. The world’s most populous state already has effective control over the South China Sea, and its influence in Laos and Cambodia is undeniably strong. The Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand are also witnessing an ever-greater Chinese economic and political presence, with China’s sights set firmly on further expanding its influence in these countries at the expense of their national sovereignty, and any loyalty that these states may hold towards America and the West.
This desperate situation leaves Australia with three main responses to China in the years to come. These can best be characterised as: engagement, appeasement or rejection. While the current government appears to lack a coherent China policy, instead switching violently between all of the above, there is an emerging voice within the Australian political scene which greatly favours the former of these three alternatives.
The ‘engagement’ approach, specifically on matters of trade and investment, is the kind espoused by former foreign minister Bob Carr, and his Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney. The main argument behind greater Australian engagement with China is economic. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and proponents of the ‘engagement’ approach see the world’s second-largest economy as pivotal to the future economic success of Australia. While this reasoning is certainly valid, there is a significant price that Australia would have to pay in order secure the financial windfall that would result from even greater engagement with China.
For one, such a policy approach towards China would entail the opening up of Australia to greater Chinese economic and political influence. Thus, in pursuing ever-greater engagement with China, Australia would erode its own national sovereignty. Moreover, greater engagement with China would inevitably result in the Australian government providing support, at least implicitly, for China’s regional ambitions; largely at the expense of Australia’s current allegiance to America. With the Chinese relationship greatly prioritised in order to achieve more ‘engagement’, Australian foreign policy would have to change; with Australia losing the ability to stand up for liberal Western values in the Asia Pacific and beyond.
While economics is central to the reasoning of those who promote greater Chinese engagement, it would be erroneous to believe that Australia can enjoy the financial benefits of greater Chinese trade and openness without a cost to national sovereignty. For example, while opening up the nation to vast amounts of Chinese investment may hold water from a financial perspective, with respect to sovereignty and national security, this approach is on far shakier ground. It simply isn’t the most sagacious of approaches to sell important Australian assets to Chinese corporations connected to the Communist Party; as would undoubtedly occur if ‘more engagement’ with China was pursued. This is because, apart from relinquishing the control of vital assets to a totalitarian foreign power, increasing Chinese business interest in Australia would inevitably lead to increasing political interest as well; and this is where the problems would really begin.
If Chinese companies were heavily involved in matters of Australian business, then Chinese individuals and, more importantly, the Chinese state, would have a clear incentive to interfere in the Australian democratic process and Australian policy-making; with the obvious goal of securing their own advantage, not that of the average Australian. The financial contributions given to Sam Dastyari, incidentally by the same man who provided the initial funding for Bob Carr’s ACRI, would just be the tip of the ‘political influence iceberg’ if Australia were to have a far more open relationship with China. Engaging too fully with China, especially considering the relative power imbalance between Australia and the world’s second-largest economy would be tantamount to selling the political independence and national sovereignty of Australia to the Chinese Communist party.
If the philosophy of ‘ever-more engagement’ was enacted, there would also be a drastic change in Australian foreign policy. Although admittedly tied to America at present, Australian foreign policy would have even less potential scope if Australia were to do away with its American alliance in favour of fostering a deeper relationship with China.
Indeed, if Australia were to make its relationship with China a primary national ambition, then it would forfeit the opportunity to create truly independent foreign policy; and would not stand against Chinese aggression in the region for fear of damaging the bilateral relationship. Australian opposition to China’s illegal actions in the South China Sea would likely be scaled back to the point of tokenism; if even present at all. The same could be said of China’s more recent territorial ambitions, such as those into Indonesia fishing waters, or the Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh. Pleasing the Chinese would come first, second and last. Any question of morality or justice in situations where China had a vested economic or political interest would be disregarded in order to maintain a strong relationship with the Chinese. The Australian government wouldn’t be able to act on what it felt was ‘right’ or justified, or even in the direct national interest in cases such as freedom of navigation for example.
If the reader is sceptical of this notion, then they need only look at the examples of Laos and Cambodia. Both nations have significant, and one-sided, economic and political engagement with China; and both support the Chinese claim, in opposition to a Court of Arbitration ruling, against the Philippines in the South China Sea. In order to keep the Chinese dragon appeased and contented for the economic benefit of the nation, the Australian government would be forced, to some degree, to align its international decision making with the interests of China.
There can be no question as to whether greater engagement with China would lead to a seismic shift in Australia’s foreign policy approach. Indeed, it would be impossible for Australia to even have more ‘engagement’ with China, economic or otherwise, if Australia stood in opposition to the central ambitions of the government in Beijing. The altering of foreign policy would be a necessity for the Australian government to initially achieve ‘more engagement’ with China.
Many of those who feel that our American alliance inhibits the ability of Australia to craft independent foreign policy often fail to grasp that greater engagement with China would yield a more restricting result. Moreover, instead of being aligned with the leaders of the ‘free world’, Australia would find itself in an allegiance with an authoritarian and undemocratic Communist state with an increasing zest for territorial expansion.
Overall, the Australian government is in the midst of a dangerous and important game. While the current schizophrenic approach to China policy is damaging both economically and politically, our current and future leaders need to be very careful in deciding which path to follow. Ultimately, in my mind at least, the decision of how to best respond to China comes down to the question of economy vs. sovereignty; and the leverage between the two.
While increased engagement with China would, provided that trade deals were negotiated well and associated economic policies implemented effectively, deliver a financial benefit to Australia, this potential gain comes at a clear cost. As detailed in this article, national sovereignty and political independence would be compromised, and policy decisions restricted to those also aligning with Chinese interests, in order to achieve ‘greater engagement’ with the Communist Party in the first place; and then to subsequently maintain positive bilateral relations.
However, the opposite is also true at the other end of the spectrum. Any Australian leader who demonstrated out and out contempt for China would have no hope of securing economic advantage for Australia through an FTA for example. Spiting Australia’s biggest trading partner makes little sense, and one has to ask themselves the point of national sovereignty if the nation was experiencing economic sclerosis or downturn as a result of decimated trade with China.
Ultimately, what is needed is a strong and measured solution; not increasingly comprehensive engagement without meaningful restrictions, but also not needless tariff implementation and a closed-door policy either. Such a balance will be hard to find, but one can only hope that there is an intelligent policy approach on either side of the political divide that can bring economic advantage to Australia; without the selling of sovereignty.
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