Aus­tralia ideal test­ing ground for China’s in­flu­ence

Global Times - - Front Page - By Mark Bee­son The au­thor is a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics at the Uni­ver­sity of West­ern Aus­tralia and a vis­it­ing Fel­low at the In­sti­tute of Pub­lic Pol­icy, South China Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy. opin­ion@ glob­al­

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.

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