30 June 2021
Red China’s birthday
The Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 100th anniversary this week, along with another significant milestone: it regained sovereignty of Hong Kong twenty-four years ago.
The official celebrations on Thursday will highlight China’s economic and military development since 1921, when foreign colonial powers controlled concessions across the country.
But the more important anniversary from a geopolitical perspective is still ahead. In 2023, the CCP will have been in power longer than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was before the socialist state’s dissolution in 1991.
For the CCP’s 92 million members, as well as the rest of the world, the interesting thing to watch for this week will be how President Xi Jinping frames his time in office and his stature compared to that of Chairman Mao Zedong.
Whatever he says, experts are divided on whether modern Chinese communism has found a way to coexist in the long term with the country’s rising middle class or whether the internal splits and sharp ideological shifts of its past will reoccur.
Nevertheless, the CCP has navigated such divisions during economically and politically difficult times, which suggests the party will survive for some time yet.
This presents Australia with a much bigger challenge than other China issues, including trade disputes and disagreements on the status of the Great Barrier Reef.
On the 100th anniversary of the CCP, Australia would do well to learn from the way its Asian neighbours have survived being much closer to this political juggernaut.
Guns and butter
In two decades’ time, Australia will be spending more on defence than on pensions, according to the 2021 Intergenerational Report, published on Monday. The report examines population, economic and budget trends over a period of forty years to identify imbalances and pressure points.
Despite Australia’s aging population, defence is set to become the third-largest area of government spending after health and non-aged-based welfare payments.
This is largely due to the government’s plan to increase military spending from 2.1 per cent of the GDP to 2.3 per cent in ten years. This plan is in line with the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, which warned that Australia could no longer count on advanced notice of a military threat.
The Intergenerational Report notes that defence spending has already received special treatment by being decoupled from GDP growth fluctuations.
Australia’s ability to spend more on defence can also be partly explained by its compulsory superannuation system, which has reduced the relative cost of the pension. But as military spending absorbs a bigger share of the budget, and as voters continue to age, it is likely that defence funding will be subject to more scrutiny.
Future governments may need to be more cautious about equipment purchases, overseas military deployments and other decisions that could lead to greater defence spending.
Australians feel most at home with their South Pacific neighbours, according to the 2021 Lowy Institute Poll.
The poll asked people to choose up to three regions or groupings of countries to which Australia belongs. The most popular response was Oceania (62 per cent), followed by the Indo-Pacific (38 per cent), the West (32 per cent), Asia (21 per cent) and “Not part of anywhere” (11 per cent).
In 2019, three-quarters of all migrants to Australia were from Asia, and 66 per cent of Australia’s two-way trade was carried out with Asian nations. Despite this, only one-fifth of Australians see their country as part of Asia.
And despite the government’s recent focus on being part of older, better-known Western groups, such as the expanded G7 or the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, only 32 per cent think Australia belongs in the West.
The “Indo-Pacific” is a relatively new foreign policy term, while the West and Asia are more established as cultural, diplomatic, geographic and economic entities. It is a narrower category than the West and broader than Asia. And yet, the poll found more Australians feel they belong to the Indo-Pacific. By contrast, Oceania, primarily a geographical term, was the most common response.
The poll’s findings have some interesting foreign policy implications. For instance, Australia’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which also includes the United States, Japan and India, is in sync with an Indo-Pacific identity. We might expect it to be popular with the Australian public as a result. If Australia were to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as some advocate, we might expect this to be less popular.
Another finding of the Lowy Institute Poll was that more Australians are in favour of providing access to COVID-19 vaccines to the South Pacific than to South-East Asia. This may also reflect Australian perceptions of regional identity.