In April, Kiron Skinner, until recently head of policy planning in the US State Department and a successor to the legendary George F. Kennan, architect of America’s Cold War strategy of containment, described US relations with China as “a fight with a really different civilisation” and the “first time we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian”.
Her critics, understandably, piled on. Had she forgotten whose aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor? What did race have to do with great power competition? Didn’t the Marxism–Leninism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) emerge from Western roots?
But Skinner’s comments were a revealing acknowledgement by a senior US policymaker of how China’s distinctiveness is shaping Western responses to its rise. America has never faced a peer competitor such as this.
In Australia, fears of Asian difference shaped strategic and social policy for much of the twentieth century. The White Australia policy was one of its dismal manifestations. And it was indeed a threat from Asia in 1942 that provided the biggest challenge of the nation’s history. My professional life began in a world in which anxiety about Chinese communist expansionism dominated foreign policy discussions and Australian diplomats in Asia could not speak to their Mao-suited Chinese counterparts, whose government we did not recognise until 1972.
But for forty years now, since Deng Xiaoping began China’s economic reforms and advised his country to “hide its capability and bide its time”, Australia has sailed through magic decades in which, as our leaders regularly intoned, we did not have to choose between our prosperity and our security. John Howard could welcome the US and Chinese presidents to address the Australian parliament on successive days in 2003.
Those days have gone. And for Australia, the sense of strangeness is growing.
We have never had to manage a relationship as important as the one we have with China, with a country so different in its language, culture, history and values. Nor one with an Asian state so confident, and possessing so many dimensions of power. Japan may have been the world’s second-largest economy, but in strategic terms it was a client of the United States.
Even at its current slower pace, China’s GDP is growing each year by roughly the equivalent of the entire Australian economy. Our government’s own projections see it surpassing the United States in total economic size (though not per capita income or comprehensive power) by the end of the next decade.
Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has become less open and more tightly controlled. Aided by new technologies such as artificial intelligence, the party-state has tightened social control throughout the country, especially over groups such as the Muslim Uyghur minority, which it deems a threat. China’s foreign policy has become more assertive, displaying ambitions that challenge the established regional order. Its military forces have been reorganised and reformed. Defence spending rose by more than 80 per cent between 2009 and 2018.
Australia’s relationship with China has domestic as well as international dimensions. It affects our budget sustainability, foreign investment, the viability of our universities and social cohesion. More than 1.2 million Australians claim Chinese ancestry, and we have seen growing evidence of People’s Republic of China (PRC) efforts to influence Australian institutions and policy debates. Canberra has become a more anxious town. Anyone who knows the place understands how quickly a sensible centrist consensus forms among the public servants, policy advisers, academics and think-tankers who make up the country’s foreign policy establishment. That consensus can be wrong (see weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) but it has underpinned a system in which the serious fights were over bureaucratic resources rather than the policies to deal with the world.
China is testing the consensus. The debate is getting sharper. Commentators and analysts from the think tanks and universities are marshalling themselves into hostile camps. Those arguing for engagement with China risk being dismissed as agents of influence or naive tools of Beijing. On the other side, suspicions of security agency conspiracies run deep, reinforced by a pattern of leaks to journalists. The business community mostly wants clarity in a situation that can’t deliver it.
The challenge we face with China isn’t having to choose between our economy and our security. It’s more difficult than that. We have to find a path that enables us to protect and manage both. At the same time, the decisions are coming faster – whether to approve particular investment proposals; how to respond to the Belt and Road Initiative; what to do about challenges to maritime law in the South China Sea; how to react to demonstrations in Hong Kong.
At the core of these choices lies one basic question: can the ambitions of a growing China be reconciled with Australia’s national interests and values? To answer that, we need to be as clear as we can about what China wants, and about how we define our interests and values.