Australia has made itself an outlier in its dealings with China
The Prime Ministerʼs dash to Japan to meet the new Japanese Prime
Minister – the first foreign leader to do so – should be welcomed.
It is unusual in terms of diplomatic protocol for an established leader to visit
a newly appointed leader, not the other way around, unless it is the US for
which normal protocol seldom applies.
Asia talks: the APEC virtual summit underway in Kuala Lumpur at the weekend. AP
Far from being seen as kow-towing to the Japanese, Morrisonʼs visit has
however underscored how much the world has changed around Australia.
It is also a further example of how Australian foreign policy has started to
notice this fact and the need for Australia to adopt more realist positions in
The embrace of Vietnam – a communist, one-party, authoritarian state with
a deplorable human rights record – is another. These adjectives could, of
course, be used to describe another major state in East Asia.
The defence arrangement (it is unclear what instrument exactly was signed)
seems not to add much in substance to what has already been announced
or is under way.
The thorny issue of capital punishment for ADF personnel if found guilty for
crimes committed in Japan that carry the death penalty seems not have
been resolved. Opposition to capital punishment remains an important
Australian value. It will be interesting to see how the government manages
balancing our values and interests in this particular case.
Still, what matters more is the symbolism and clearly Chinaʼs vitriolic
response indicates that it has not been lost on Beijing. The East Asian region
is now one of many moving parts, all set in motion by Chinaʼs ascendancy
and America's turn inwards.
After years of being rejected by India from participating in the trilateral
annual naval exercises, Malabar, Australia has now been let in, presumably
as part of Indiaʼs strategic messaging to China following their mid-year
clashes in Ladakh.
As a result, the Australian Navy finds itself exercising in the Bay of Bengal
and the Arabian Sea, far removed from areas of strategic sensitivity in East
We have opted for strategic competition with China, at the cost of
strategic cooperation where it is in our interests to do so.
Nonetheless, the Quad has now been militarised which will further add to
Beijingʼs sense of insecurity and support the hawks' assessment that
Australia is bent on containment of China. The Prime Ministerʼs rush to
Tokyo will be interpreted by Beijing as reinforcing this view.
This will most certainly crowd out any attention that the Treasurerʼs
conciliatory remarks towards China may have received from his speech in
recent days acknowledging Chinaʼs success in managing the pandemic and
returning to robust economic growth. As Australia looks to its own economic
recovery, Chinaʼs will be of fundamental importance for the Treasurer.
Also the past week, we have also seen states in East Asia engaging and
hedging with China.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was signed
finally after eight years of negotiations. It includes all the major countries of
the region. Indiaʼs absence reinforces the minimal interests India has in East
Asia and the converse, namely, that East Asia is the only security system in
the region that matters.
Indicative of declining US engagement in the region, RCEP is the second
major piece of regional architecture to be created without the US, following
the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2014.
The US had been a founding member of the TPP but withdrew after the
election of President Donald Trump. It is not evident that a Biden
administration will return to the TPP.
So the region continues to reshape itself to declining US engagement and
Chinaʼs rising power.
When many pieces are moving, it is challenging for diplomacy and strategic
missteps in timing and substance are an ever-present reality.
Just as the Prime Minster was leaving Japan, the Chinese Ambassador to
Tokyo was sounding conciliatory on the fractious Senkaku/Diao Yu Dao
Islands dispute and progress was announced on the Japan-China-South
Korea free trade negotiations.
Tokyo and Beijing are busily recalibrating their relationship through further
engagement ahead of the change in administration in Washington.
In contrast, Australia has made itself an outlier in its dealings with China.
This is an inconvenient truth that no amount of feigned or even real
indignation coming out of Canberra over Chinaʼs actions should be
permitted to conceal.
Australia is most certainly not alone in having important and complex
challenges to address with a rising and assertive China.
If we were, the current dire state of our relationship would be just something
we have to live with, as senior ministers suggest.
The policy failure is that among all the many countries, both in our region
and beyond, which are concerned about Chinaʼs behaviour, we have not
been able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
Protecting Australiaʼs interests involves not only hardening defences against
an overreaching China, but also maintaining relations with the dominant
power in the region.
We have opted for strategic competition with China at the cost of strategic
co-operation where it is in our interests to do so.
In the region, Australiaʼs values and democratic institutions are not the only
ones that sit at odds with Chinaʼs. New Zealand for one faces all of the
challenges that Australia does, but still manages to maintain constructive
diplomatic relations, including high-level visits during the period in which
Australia has been frozen out.
But no country more than Japan has to balance deep historical animosities,
ongoing territorial issues, contingent geography, and deep economic
Yet Japan still maintains normal diplomatic relations and engagement,
including the presence of a substantial contingent of its media in China. Xi
Jinping was to have visited Japan in April this year until COVID intervened.
Some commentators, including in these pages, seem not to understand the
difference between being alone and being an outlier.
Australia is definitely not alone but is certainly an outlier. It is to be hoped
that Prime Minister Morrison used some of his time last week with Prime
Minister Yoshihide Suga to seek guidance on how to manage its various
interests with an assertive China and avoid the binary choice of sycophancy
or hostility which is how Australiaʼs China policy is now framed.
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Geoff Raby was Australiaʼs Ambassador to China, 2007-11. His book
Chinaʼs Grand Strategy and Australiaʼs Future in the New Global Order was
published on 3 November by MUP.
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