Finding a way to get the China relationship right and not being afraid to talk about the risks in the relationship as well as the opportunities that remain may well be one of Australia’s greatest foreign policy challenges in the next few decades.
In an opinion piece in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday, Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, chair of the Australian Parliamentary Joint Committee for Intelligence and Security, wrote on the need for the Australian public to see and understand the risk posed by China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour. Hastie called on Australian society to accept and adapt “to the reality of the geopolitical struggle before us – its origins, its ideas and its implications for the Indo-Pacific region”.
Hastie’s comments were immediately denounced by the embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Canberra. Since 2009 the Chinese Communist Party has invested billions to shape a positive global image for China. Any critical commentary faces an attempt to shut it down with accusations of being “anti-China”, “demonising China”, “Cold War thinking”, “McCarthyism” “xenophobia” or “[racial] prejudice”.
Thus, predictably, Hastie was accused by the embassy of raising the spectre of the “China threat” and having “Cold War thinking” and an “ideological bias”.
Labor’s shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers, also denounced Hastie’s comments, calling them “extreme, overblown and unwelcome”. But Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong was silent, as was Labor leader Anthony Albanese. Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended Hastie’s right to speak out as a backbencher and said he had not said anything that hadn’t been said before.
Hastie’s risk assessment resonates with statements made by both Australian and international leaders. Australia, like many of its partners and allies, is at a turning point as it responds to the complex new security environment. Of course, China is not the only challenge our governments
A series of events is putting massive pressure on the international order. To name just a few: China’s assertion of control over the territorially contested waters of the South China Sea and expanded military activities in Antarctica and the Pacific; the new space race at the poles which has transformed the strategic significance of Antarctica; President Donald Trump’s iconoclastic foreign and trade policy that alienates allies as much as it affects strategic competitors; Russia’s disruptive foreign policy, the disastrous impact of Brexit on the economy and politics of both Britain and the EU, the spread of radical terrorist acts on a global scale, the refugee crisis, and the effects of climate change.
The formerly stable post-World War II international order appears to be coming to an end. The world is seeing a return of both “might is right” politics and reassertion of spheres of influence.
Australia has led the world in facing up to the China component of the new security environment, passing legislation against foreign interference, addressing the risk of Huawei and the 5G network, and working to undo the damage of former Australian government policy that allowed three BeiDou global navigation ground stations to be set up on Australian territory and permitted foreign control of critical infrastructure such as the Port of Darwin.
The Australian government has also launched a new Pacific policy, stepping up its level of engagement with its neighbours. As was the case in WWII, the small island states of the South Pacific are shields for Australia. If a hostile nation controlled one of the island states on Australia’s maritime periphery, they could cut off shipping and communications.
Australia has made adjustments in its China policy and developed a well-thought-out resilience strategy, because a realistic assessment of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy has given it no other choice. Since coming to power in 2012, Xi Jinping has returned the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign policy to a level of antagonism not seen since the Cultural Revolution, while China’s domestic foreign policy has also returned to extremes of oppression familiar from the Mao years.
Xi has revived many Maoist tactics, including a massive expansion of “united front work”, a form of political warfare that the party has perfected over many decades. United front work is both a tool of domestic political control and of Chinese foreign policy.
Andrew Hastie chairs the parliamentary committee that helped pass the new counter-foreign interference legislation which will help to address the Chinese Communist Party’s aggressive united front work activities in Australia, so more than most, he understands the risks. But legislation is not the sole solution to addressing the China challenge.
National security is a matter of concern for every citizen and the public conversation is as important as the policy negotiations behind the scenes. Our governments need to speak frankly about the risk.
The Australian public should be informed on the challenges, as well as the opportunities of Australia-China relations.
Society has an important role in national security; an informed society is the means to engage in total defence.
Our democracy is made by us all, each and every single day. In a challenging new security environment we have to be confident about speaking up on the problems our governments face, as well as the solutions.
We need to be confident to talk about China, the risks as well as the opportunities.
By Professor Anne-Marie Brady, a China specialist at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. She is the author of Small States and the Changing Global Order: New Zeland Faces the Future.