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.
Kishida thus far appears to be continuing Abe’s legacy on China. He selected former Defense Minister Nakatani Gen as a special adviser on human rights matters with China in mind, and appointed as his Foreign Minister, Hayashi Yoshimasa, who is the immediate past chair of the Japan-China Friendship Parliamentarians’ Union, It remains to be seen whether his pledge at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2022 to “set out a new National Security Strategy by the end of this year” and his foreign policy vision of “realism diplomacy for a new era” will change this calculus. At the end of the parliamentary session in June he said, “I will say to China the things that need to be said and strongly urge China to act responsibly, while at the same time building up our dialogue with China on various outstanding issues and cooperating on matters of common interest.” This combination of straight-talking with cooperative endeavor has also been manifest in Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo’s June meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. Defense Minister Kishi “stated that it is necessary to have candid communication especially when there are concerns about Japan-China relations.” Both sides “agreed to continue dialogue and exchanges.”
Indonesia, with its long and complicated history with China, has forged closer relations with China over the last few years. The countries signed a currency swap agreement in 2020 that was extended in January this year and established an annual high-level dialogue in 2021. Indonesia also proposed the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) which, while unlikely to be operationalized, was an attempt to establish a regional initiative that included China. Huawei and ZTE are also major players in Indonesia’s telecommunications sector, with an unnamed senior Indonesian government official, quoted in July 2022, said, “If we’re constantly afraid, our development will stagnate.” Indonesian President Joko Widodo has maintained a relatively close relationship with President Xi, reportedly referring to China as a “good friend and brother” in an April 2021 phone call. The two leaders met in Beijing in July this year and pledged to strengthen trade ties and increase cooperation in agriculture, food security.
The case studies confirm that the Morrison government’s vocal approach was more outlier than model. But maintaining, as many of these countries are doing, a strategic middle ground will inevitably get more difficult as great power competition intensifies.
Since his inauguration, President Biden and senior officials have made a clear attempt, despite being largely focused on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and responding to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, to ensure that America’s presence and role in the region continues. This has been most visibly manifest in the administration’s announcement of an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, but also in the efforts to ensure that America’s diplomatic presence, both at regional summits and in the establishment of new diplomatic posts in the Pacific. The United States has been keen to demonstrate that it is still, in the words of President Obama’s 2011 speech in Canberra announcing the U.S. pivot to the region, “here to stay.”
How then, to arrive at a judgment on the claims that Australia stands as a model for pushing back against Chinese new strategic aggression? On the one hand, Canberra’s credentials as a loyal U.S. ally have only been enhanced. Australia’s visibility in Washington is increased, and there can be no doubt that the punishment Australia has suffered on the trade front has bolstered calls from both Democrats and Republicans for a tougher U.S. stance towards Beijing. Outside wartime, allied solidarity has rarely been this strong. But Canberra has gained much more than undreamt of accolades in the American capital. Under the AUKUS agreement, announced in September last year, the Biden administration has agreed to extend some of its most sensitive nuclear technology with Canberra with a view to the achievement for Australia of a nuclear submarine capability. Only Britain, in 1958, has been accorded this access. If successfully implemented, it will constitute the biggest and most expensive defense acquisition in Australian history.
There are however limitations to the posture Australia has adopted. The first comes in the sizeable gap between some of the previous government’s rhetoric about the coming of war with China and the level of its actual defense preparedness. In the event of any Sino-American conflict over Taiwan, for example, Australia could but offer only what it has always offered to its great power ally—a niche, and therefore largely symbolic military commitment. The second is that for all the preening Australian political leaders have engaged in on the world stage, they have until recently taken their eye off the region of most vital import for Australian security—the Pacific. The announcement during the federal election campaign earlier this year that the Solomon Islands government would sign a security deal with Beijing sent a shockwave through the strategic community here and in Washington. The Biden administration dispatched its Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, to assess the situation. This cannot have gone down well in the U.S. policy community, who have long expected and actively encouraged Canberra to do the heavy lifting in the Pacific. The new Labor government, particularly under the energetic diplomacy of Foreign Minister Wong, has achieved considerable early success in re-establishing Australia’s credibility in the eyes of its Pacific partners. Australia’s readiness to be the most vociferous in pushing back against China has also had consequences in terms of its reputation in Southeast Asia. Some regional capitals, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia, have expressed concern over the implications of the AUKUS deal for a regional arms race and non-proliferation regimes. And as demonstrated above, the Australian approach has not necessarily provided the lodestar for other key Asian partners. Even more Chinese saber-rattling, however, could alter that dynamic.
The Albanese government, along with other key U.S. allies and partners, have a responsibility to try and assist Washington in re-establishing the guardrails in its relationship with China. Collectively, they must pour their diplomatic energies into ensuring that the voices of restraint in Washington resist what would surely be a catastrophic clash with China over Taiwan. If that were to take place, there will be little talk of “models,” only the protracted period of postwar reconstruction in East Asia that would likely continue for the remainder of the century.
Elena Collinson is a senior researcher at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney.
James Curran is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sydney, foreign affairs columnist for The Australian Financial Review, and author of Australia’s China Odyssey: From Euphoria to Fear (NewSouth, 2022).