Has Australia Found the Right Answer to Chinese Aggression?
The Albanese government has a responsibility to try and assist Washington in re-establishing the guardrails in its relationship with China.
The picture becomes even more complicated because some of those Australian exports hit by Chinese tariffs were able to find markets elsewhere. Moreover, the crucial iron ore trade between Australia and China, the major source of Australian economic prospered in recent decades, has not only continued, but prospered. As one unnamed Australian mining executive colorfully put it, “China and Australia are in a kind of multi-scrotum clutch on iron ore. They are not going to hurt us. We are not going to hurt them.” Nevertheless, it bears noting that the more vocal elements in Australia’s China debate have interpreted Australia’s ability to diversity its export markers as proof positive of its decision to take a stand against China. Seen in that light, it has only entrenched the belief that Australia’s policy settings have proved correct.
Another way of examining the proposition of Australia as a model is to look at how others in region have dealt with China. Australia has certainly had some success in attempts regionalize this bilateral challenge. It signed a Reciprocal Access Agreement with Japan in January 2021, an important step in the Australia-Japan quasi-alliance, and just signed a new declaration on defense cooperation. Canberra also played an enthusiastic role in elevating the Quad, a diplomatic network comprising the US, India and Japan, to leader-level talks two months later, and established a comprehensive strategic partnership with ASEAN in October 2021. At the end of that year, it inked an AU$1 billion weapons deal with Seoul, reportedly Australia’s largest defense contract with an Asian nation, and upgraded its relationship with South Korea to a comprehensive strategic partnership.
Australia has also provided a blueprint of sorts for some countries in the region. In 2019, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, asked whether there was anything Singapore could learn from the Australian experience in passing legislation against foreign interference, responded, “Our current thinking is broadly aligned with Australia’s approach.” Two years later, the country passed similar laws. But while the Australian focus in passing the legislation was squarely on countering China, The Straits Times reported Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam in a speech during parliamentary debate over the bill saying that “while international media regularly identifies Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as perpetrators, the United States and other Western countries have similar, or in the case of the US, even superior capabilities.”
Three months after Australia made the decision to exclude Huawei and ZTE from its 5G network, Japan’s central government ministries and Self-Defense Forces received guidelines that, while not referring to any company by name, effectively prohibited them from purchasing telecommunications equipment from Huawei and other Chinese companies. India, while not officially banning the telcos, effectively locked them out in 2020 through an internal directive to all government ministries to exclude them from any tenders. This followed a visit to New Delhi in September 2019 by Australian cyber security officials, including Australian Signals Directorate representatives, who reportedly engaged in “multiple discussions” about “how the Turnbull government arrived at the decision to ban Huawei.” India also went on to block fifty-nine Chinese apps, including TikTok and WeChat, in 2021. Singapore quietly decided to go with alternative 5G suppliers in 2020, and while there has been no official government directive, Vietnam has not included the company in any of its 5G plans.
But the general regional tenor overall still appears to be one of caution, as hedging strategies continue to be embraced in these countries’ navigation of tensions with China.
Asked what his advice for Australia would be on how to handle China, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a press conference with Scott Morrison in June 2021 replied,
You need to work with the country … You don’t have to become like them, neither can you hope to make them become like you … There will be rough spots… and you have to deal with that. But deal with them as issues in a partnership which you want to keep going and not issues, which add up to an adversary which you are trying to suppress.
In November, ahead of President Biden’s Summit for Democracy, Prime Minister Lee told Bloomberg, “We all want to work together with the US,” but, “I think not very many countries would like to join a coalition against those who have been excluded, chief of whom would be China.” He continued this point in May this year, following the U.S. launch of the Indo-Pacific Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), telling a press conference in Tokyo that “it is far better that China’s economy be integrated into the region, than for it to operate on its own by a different set of rules.” He emphasized Singapore’s position most recently on August 21, during a National Day Rally speech, “Some countries will choose a side. Others, like Singapore, will try our best to avoid getting caught up in major power rivalry.”
India also continues to cleave to a policy of non-alignment against the backdrop of long-running border disputes that only two years ago resulted in the deaths of at least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers. While India has gradually shown more enthusiasm towards the Quad, and re-invited Australia to its Malabar naval exercises with the U.S. and Japan in 2020, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in a September 2021 press conference, following the India-Australia 2+2 ministerial meeting, rejected the notion that the Quad was analogous to a NATO-style grouping: “[I]f you look at the kind of issues [the] Quad is focused on today… I can’t see any relationship between such issues and NATO or any other kind of organisations like that.” And in describing the intentions of the Quad in February 2022 he said, “We are for something, not against somebody.” Asked in June where India fits into the picture between the US-led West on the one hand and China as a potential axis on the hand, Minister Jaishankar was forceful in his response:
That is exactly where I disagree with you. This is the construct you are trying to impose on me. And I don’t accept it. I don’t think it is necessary for me to join this axis or not, and if I’m not joining this, I must be with the other one. … I am entitled to have my own side, I am entitled to weigh my own interests, make my own choices.
Indeed, at the end of August, India joined China in participating in Russia’s annual Vostok military exercises. Speaking of Australia’s relationship with China on his most recent visit to Sydney, Jaishankar was emphatic that “Shutting down talking, burning bridges ... I would not recommend it. At the end of the day, countries have to deal with each other and you have to find some way of keeping that going.”
South Korea is another that’s walked the tightrope between the United States and China. During a press conference following the fifth Australia/Korea foreign and defense ministers 2+2 meeting in September 2021 a Korean journalist put to the ministers that the “Korean government is … trying to seek a balance between the U.S. and China, whereas Australia is more standing against China.” The characterization of the Korean approach was not rejected by then-Korean Foreign Minister, Chung Eui-Yong. And during his December 2021 visit to Australia, then-South Korean President Moon Jae-In made it a point to declare that his visit had “nothing to do with our position over China.” He said further, “We need the constructive efforts of China to enable denuclearization of DPRK. Therefore, Korea is focused on the steadfast alliance with the U.S. and also with China. We want a harmonized relationship and we want to maintain such a relationship.”
South Korea’s current president, Yoon Suk-yeol, despite tough on China rhetoric on the campaign trail that led observers to believe that Seoul would gravitate more decisively toward the US, and his resumption of trilateral missile defense drills with the United States and Japan, refrained from naming China at the NATO summit in July even as NATO for the first time declared China a security challenge. He also declined to meet with U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi during her stop in Seoul immediately following her trip to Taiwan in August. South Korean and Chinese foreign ministers met in Qingdao on 9 August, while China was conducting live-fire drills around Taiwan. They pledged to accelerate Korea-China free trade negotiations and deepen cooperation on climate change, among other areas. Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin also proposed “consultations” between the countries to “promote communication and cooperation at regional and global levels.”
Japan has become increasingly vocal about pushing back against China. Most recently, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida joined with his UK counterpart Liz Truss to label China a “strategic threat.” However, it continues to “thread the needle.” Former prime minister Abe Shinzo characterised Japan’s China policy under his leadership in the following terms:
I think China is a believer in power. At the same time China greatly values face. It is necessary to have diplomacy that has a mix of hard and soft. I personally have taken on the “hated role” of applying pressure on China in the area of security while at the same time persuading anti-China hardliners within the party. On the other hand, I think it has gone well as a result of having had Mr [Toshihiro] Nikai and other cabinet ministers give face to the Chinese side, offering cooperation, mainly in the economic field.