Past prime ministers and foreign ministers, academics, business people and journalists are critical of the government’s handling of our relationship with China.
These critics point to bad Australian policy, an over-reaction to slights, poorly chosen words combined with bad timing, or a simple case of wanting to please our American ally. As these arguments go, China is more important to Australia than we are to China so it’s best to swallow our pride, bite our tongue and work towards a more friendly accommodation. These same voices call for better balance, nuance, pragmatism or perspective.
Mistakes are always made in the handling of such a difficult relationship, but it is the Morrison government and not its loudest critics that has a better grasp of the challenge and understanding of where it needs to land.
This is not the first time the Chinese Communist Party has gone on the economic and diplomatic offensive against another country. Beijing has done that against the Japanese over disagreements in the East China Sea; South Korea for daring to protect itself better against Pyongyang’s illegal missile and nuclear threats; and The Philippines for asserting its legal rights in the South China Sea. Others outside East Asia on the receiving end include India, Mongolia, Britain and Norway.
Perversely, the frequency with which Beijing relies on inflicting punishments has led some to normalise that behaviour implicitly by blaming those on the receiving end for provoking China or mismanaging the relationship. It is as if Chinese coercion is accepted as a given in the international system and sensible statecraft is all about how best to avoid that pain.
Of course, friendly relations with our largest trading partner are generally a good idea. But we must work with what we are given and what is being imposed on us.
An apposite place to begin is with the 14 points of disagreement issued by the Chinese embassy, which neatly summarises Beijing’s displeasure with the Turnbull-Morrison governments.
These include our foreign investment restrictions, legislation to counter foreign interference and covert influence, the government’s funding of think tanks that Beijing does not like and the banning of Chinese firms from our 5G network.
These are all sovereign decisions taken by the federal government over what happens within Australia, which is the basic right of any government to decide on laws and policies for its own jurisdiction. Even on the outward-facing aspects of the 14 points such as Australia’s position on the South China Sea and the inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, any country reserves an inherent diplomatic right to offer their views on such matters of immense national, regional and global concern.
The argument that Australia remains silent on these issues is tantamount to suggesting that we do not have the right to pursue our interests beyond or even within our borders.
This brings us to why the Morrison government’s approach to China is broadly correct, even if one might quibble about better execution of this or that policy.
It is true that China is not overtly seeking to export its system and values in the manner of the Soviet Union during the latter’s most strident years. But Beijing is seeking to reset and revise the way countries interact with China: economically, diplomatically, politically and strategically.
The CCP wants obedience, obeisance and to eliminate the display of dissent by governments, including with respect to domestic policies and decisions. It is why Beijing has punished Asian and European countries in the past and it is why we are now on the nose.
The objective, as the CCP itself makes clear, is to entrench a permanent hierarchical order where it has the capacity to exercise influence and even veto domestic and foreign policy decisions taken by countries in its periphery. It is picking on Australia because we are the most forward-leaning in refusing to conduct relations on these terms. Beijing is seeking to punish Australia for daring to make bold sovereign decisions and, in doing so, warding off others from trying to do the same.
What is occurring is best seen as a painful but necessary negotiation undertaken by the Morrison government to set acceptable terms for our relationship with China. Others have gone through pain and emerged with varying degrees of success.
Japan held its ground and eventually conditioned China to accept Tokyo’s preferred off-ramp. Others such as South Korea and several Southeast Asian states compromised too much for short-term relief, only to find that Beijing subsequently demanded even more rather than less.
This is the upshot. What is occurring is not about Australian stubbornness, miscalculation or pandering to Washington. It is about creating room to exercise the rights of our sovereignty rather than exchanging that for silence or, worse, servitude. Doubling down on the US alliance, reinvigorating the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue nations’ economic and security co-operation, the Pacific step-up and assisting Southeast Asian nations to uphold their rights and privileges better is partly about making it more difficult for Beijing to impose its preferred conditions on Australia and other nations.
For those obsessed with a more independent foreign policy, this is precisely what a brave and creative smaller power ought to be doing.