This review is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy.
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China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s Future in the New Global Order
Melbourne University Press
On the question of how to deal with China, Australia is a house divided. Those in one camp believe that China is a threat to Australia and must be confronted. Some in this camp feel that China will seek to impose regional and global hegemony, as the United States did after World War II; others fear not global dominance, but the insidious threat stemming from the ideology of the Communist Party of China, the authoritarian proclivities of Xi Jinping and/or the expanding Chinese military. Those in the other camp believe we should engage with China. Several argue that China faces internal challenges and global interdependencies that limit its ambitions and capabilities; others regard China’s rise as inexorable and deserving of accommodation, rather than resistance.
Advocates of confrontation with China accuse their opponents of naivety and appeasement. In turn, proponents of engagement assert that strategies to push back against China, such as economic decoupling and aggressive rhetoric, risk dire financial consequences and fuel anti-Asian racism. These divisions on China policy have surfaced in political parties, the bureaucracy, the business world, the academy and think tanks, and sometimes play out in nasty ways on social media.
In general, those with inclinations towards security and defence lean towards confrontation while those of an economics and business bent favour engagement, though there are exceptions. For instance, the former head of Defence and the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Dennis Richardson, recently warned against the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s push to prioritise a national security agenda over economic needs.
Former ambassador to China Geoff Raby falls squarely in the engagement camp. In his new book, an important contribution to the “China debate”, Raby argues that the threat of China has been overstated. China’s ambitions remain limited to ensuring its territorial integrity, securing its borders and vital sea lanes, and maintaining the domestic dominance of the CCP. It lacks the brand of exceptionalism that has driven other rising powers, and it will not attempt to marginalise its regional rivals, Japan and the United States, because they are too strong, and too useful.
Raby unfurls this argument across three chapters, peppered with insights from his time as a diplomat and an ambassador. Not only is China’s “grand strategy” not so grand, he argues, but Beijing will struggle to achieve even its limited goals. Unlike the United States during its rise to power, China has a fraught history and geography that has left it in ongoing territorial disputes with countries including India, Japan and Vietnam, and it faces challenges over Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. Its efforts to exercise soft power internationally through influence and interference have been largely unsuccessful, and have invited a backlash. What’s more, China’s economic model has resulted in a heavy dependence on imported resources.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, are often mooted as evidence of China’s plan to construct an alternative regional order, but Raby argues they instead constitute a parallel “bounded order”. This order intersects with and sits alongside existing multilateral institutions, in which China often behaves as a status quo power. Moreover, Raby notes, the BRI and aid outreach to resource-rich countries has often overpromised and underdelivered. Indeed, China’s recent focus on a “dual circulation” strategy, which places greater emphasis on domestic consumption and supply chains, may in part be driven by mounting problems with BRI projects, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and slowing global economic growth.
Raby points out that Australia has often got China wrong. He attributes Canberra’s recent confrontational stance to policy-makers’ lack of understanding of China’s constraints and ambitions and to a historical “fear of abandonment” by bigger Western powers. By yoking to the United States, and cultivating the Quad (Australia, Japan, the United States and India) and the rhetoric of the Indo-Pacific as mechanisms for balancing and containing China’s influence, Australia has become a proxy strategic competitor to China without a coherent plan to maintain the mutually beneficial economic relationship. To this end, Raby proposes a new grand strategy for Australia, based on the promotion of a more independent foreign policy aimed at maintaining stability in East Asia and engaging China.
However, his policy prescriptions are underwhelming. Raby urges a return to a middle-power diplomatic agenda in the Asia-Pacific, citing Australia’s promotion of the Asia Pacific Economic Community in the 1980s. He recommends a strategy of hedging through close involvement in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He also touts the maintenance of the security relationship with the United States, albeit with increased defence spending in anticipation of Washington’s declining reliability, and a continued economic partnership with China, combined with greater cooperation.
Australian officials might respond that much of this is already taking place. For example, the recently concluded Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, which is curiously ignored in the book, was championed by Australia, Japan and ASEAN, and integrates China into a fifteen-nation trade framework. The Morrison government has lately declared that it intends to pursue a policy of strategic patience with China. But Raby goes further, suggesting Canberra seek a formal association with the BRI and Chinese entry into the Quad, two developments that are unlikely to occur. He also points out that Australia’s criticisms of China’s behaviour, though legitimate, are often expressed loudly and stridently, with little effect aside from a continued deterioration of the relationship.
Among the challenges Raby foresees for Australia, in developing a close involvement in ASEAN, is the need to work with governments with poor democratic and human rights records. Here Raby need not worry, for Australia has never had much trouble accommodating authoritarian regimes. Recall that in 1989, the same year that foreign minister Gareth Evans advanced “good international citizenship” as a pillar of Australian foreign policy, he was photographed drinking champagne with Ali Alatas, foreign minister in the Indonesian Suharto dictatorship, to celebrate a deal to divvy up the oil and gas reserves of East Timor – a territory Jakarta had annexed and ruled through brutal repression. Today, the Morrison government hails its “shared values” with the autocratic regime that rules Vietnam and the increasingly authoritarian government of India – Australian policy-makers’ fear of China has already had the effect of reducing values to little more than the defence of state sovereignty. Moreover, the slow erosion of civil liberties in Australia, through legislation such as the ASIO Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2003 and the ASIO Amendment Bill 2020 – the latter a direct response to concerns about Chinese interference – means that Australia has moved closer to its neighbours in the past two decades when it comes to the assertion of state power over citizens.
Ultimately, a truly independent foreign policy would require Australia to move away from both dependence on the United States for its security and on China for its economy. The abandonment of the US–Australia alliance and reducing our reliance on resources exports to China would undoubtedly be too radical for Raby. But the United States is showing obvious signs of decline, and China is now indicating a desire to reduce its foreign economic dependence. The price of “alliance maintenance” has been laid bare in the Brereton Report on Australian war crimes in Afghanistan.
The economic importance of resource exports to Australia has led to an unwillingness to address climate change, despite its deleterious effects regularly on display during Australia’s long, hot summers. The time may have come for the staid field of Australian foreign policy to consider some radical options.