Australia ideal testing ground for China’s influence
Relations between China and Australia are becoming increasingly testy and strained. A growing number of people in Australia are concerned about the extent and nature of China’s influence. Significantly, it’s not just the usual suspects in the Department of Defense or diehard supporters of the military alliance with the US that are worried. On the contrary, there is also a noteworthy division among academics and China-watchers about how to respond to recent developments.
The publication of Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia has been the catalyst for this increasingly heated debate. Hamilton claims that “Beijing sees Australia, along with New Zealand, as the ‘weak link’ in the Western world and the ideal place for testing its strategies for breaking up the global reach of the United States and so helping to realize Xi Jinping’s China Dream.”
Whatever Chinese readers might think about this argument, the key point is that many observers in Australia, New Zealand, the US and elsewhere think it is true. Not only do many in the West believe that China is actively employing so-called “sharp power” to pursue its national interests and shape the way foreigners see China, but they think China is threatening the rules-based international order that Australian foreign policy depends upon in the process.
You may well respond by wondering if Australians are so concerned about liberal values, why do they give unqualified support to Donald Trump, who is seemingly intent on tearing down the entire edifice of Western liberalism and the principles it supposedly enshrines? Good question. There is no shortage of blame and hypocrisy to go round in the current crisis of liberal internationalism, as the looming trade war reminds us.
This will not be a popular idea in this country, but China must share some of the blame in the context of deteriorating relations with Australia, at least. There are two sides to every story and every bilateral relationship, too. China may not like being lectured by Australia about politics, human rights or anything else. But Chinese policymakers need to recognize that there are equally strong opinions about key aspects of “Australian values” that will generate significant blowback if consciously or accidentally threatened.
It is a measure of both how important and influential China has become that it actually makes sense to talk about blowback, a phrase that was initially used to describe the counterproductive impact of American grand strategy around the world. As China has become a great power once more, it is likely to be subjected to precisely the same sorts of criticisms. It goes with the territory, as they say.
In China’s case, territory is the operative word. While almost no one in China may doubt the validity of its territorial claims in the region, plenty of people outside China do. Foreign relations are a two-way street: the reception, not necessarily the original intention, of policies is ultimately what determines success or failure. So far China’s record in Australia is not too impressive.
Not only is it suggested that the shrinking pool of politicians who express pro-China sentiments do so because they have been paid to do so, but academics are being similarly vilified, too. Being labeled as a “friend of China” is rapidly becoming synonymous with naivety or worse. Being a “China critic” on the other hand, risks being accused of being a racist or an American lackey. Neither of these outcomes is good for either Australia or China.
Hamilton is right about one thing, at least: Australia is a good place for China to test its foreign policy strategies. If China can develop closer diplomatic and even strategic ties with Australia it would be a foreign policy triumph given the latter’s historically close links to the US. But whenever China critics can point to interference in Australia’s domestic affairs and threats to Australian values and sovereignty, such ambitions will remain unrealizable.
China’s policymakers need to realize that it’s not even necessary for claims about interference to be true, or any different in intent from the sorts of thing that every other country does for that matter, for them to create significant blowback. Reassuring Australia’s notoriously nervous strategic thinkers will, indeed, be a major test of China’s increasingly sophisticated diplomatic skills.