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Spears in place of Bridges: Australia, China and Fashioned Ignorance

There is an overwhelming boisterous ignorance that characterises Australia’s foreign policy approach to China. When Beijing was boxed and derided as emerging, weak and well-behaved, everyone supposedly got on. Washington remained the region’s patriarch and Australia its policing deputy. Everyone could get on plundering resources and making some ruddy cash along the way. Then, assumptions started being challenged: the cheeky Yellow Devil refused to stay quiet. The Anglophone states started to worry.

Striking about such commentary on China as the illegitimate aggressor, the law breaker, the breacher of convention, is its distinct cultural imperviousness. As with much in this field, an obsession with power trumps historical understanding and sensitivity. And if one country – in this case Australia – claims to have identified a fictional standard known as the “rules-based international order” – it follows that others must abide by it.

Such views only see China as a muddled confection, a perception of willing blindness and special investment. Be it of fear, condescension or optimism, Australian governments have shifted violently over the years in their approach. The Australia of Gough Whitlam, in recognising the People’s Republic of China in December 1972, invested the country with, as James Curran puts it, “a sense of euphoria and liberation: that Australia could chart a new foreign policy that did not necessarily look instinctively to its great and powerful friends.”

That approach, to some or lesser extent, held up till the initial stages of the Turnbull government. Even the often testosterone addled Tony Abbott could focus on the economic side of things, even if he found the cultural aspect of Sino-Australian relations problematic. What mattered most was trade, and trade was what both countries got in the form of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA), which came into effect on December 20, 2015.

Instead of sober dealing and balanced engagement, the sabres have been unsheathed, the scabbards abandoned. The previous economic approach to China takes a beating in such warmongering outlets as The Australian (paywalled), which accuses the trade and commerce types for empowering “the bully we now face.” It is an environment that leads strategic analysts to use distinctly un-analytical approaches in examining China’s actions.

Rory Medcalf of the Australian National University is one, positively bursting with excitement at Australia’s regrettably bizarre flirtation with members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). All problems of power and violence are, for Medcalf, the same thing. Look at China. Look at Russia. Rule-breakers and subverters. In a piece run in the German 49 Security Forum, he warns his European audience that the Ukraine War “will develop within a global context, which will be framed by the China-Russia ‘no-limits’ partnership and the lessons Beijing is learning and will apply for its own purposes of dominance.”

This looks, on the surface at least, like a clumsily revised version of the Global Domino Effect, when it was assumed that the Moscow-Peking relationship would turn the world a communist red, and do so blissfully united. Whitlam, and his Washington counterpart President Richard Nixon, thought better of that.

Australia, Medcalf also suggested, had shown foresight in supplying military equipment to Ukraine and attending the NATO summit as an Indo-Pacific partner, “another signal that we recognize the need for solidarity with democratic partners around the world.” This is the kind of reasoning that gives the field of geopolitics a deservedly bad name and detaches Australia from reality.

Former Singaporean diplomat and foreign policy intellectual Kishore Mahbubani is one who takes issue with this sort of porcelain breaking approach. “Australia’s strategic dilemma in the twenty-first century,” he writes, “is simple: it can choose to be a bridge between East and the West in the Asian Century – or the tip of the spear projecting Western power into Asia.”

The most stubborn feature of wilful blindness here is the refusal to admit that Western domination is ending. Australia’s gaze remains averted from the motor of history. This geopolitical shift away from the West is characterised by such changes as purchasing power parity, with Beijing’s wallet becoming increasingly heavier. China has also muscled in on the trade stakes: in 2000, over 80% of the globe’s countries traded more with the US than China; by 2020, the balance had flipped, with 70% (128 countries out of 190) having more trade with China.

Of interest is the misreading of attitudes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “The vote of 141 out of 193 UN member states to condemn the Russian invasion seemed to show a strategic alignment between the West and ‘the Rest’.” Looking more closely, Mahbubani issues a pointed reminder that countries representing more than half the globe’s population – China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and South Africa, for instance – did not favour the resolution. The countries abstaining, in other words, had 51% of the globe’s population.

The other often neglected aspect of this discussion is the assumption that opposing aspects of Chinese foreign policy, notably by other countries, must come with an aggressive hailer or tooting horn of indignation. Australia’s insular security establishment in Canberra makes the same mistake time and again: that India and Japan, by way of examples, are happy to go along with the Quadrilateral security arrangements, supposedly in lockstep with Canberra, as an overt anti-China pact.

The reality is less rosy and more delicate. Australian diplomacy, practised in its ignorance, has little understanding about the importance of not losing face, and how it remains the precept that governs the cultural considerations of many of its neighbours. Coarseness, and an unqualified resolve to go to war in comradely fashion with the United States, remain dominant. Instead of being an accommodating bridge between East and West, Canberra remains a fashioned spear for Western power.


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  1. Phil Pryor

    Much is useful, informative, and some may attract the scrap gobblers and scribblers, but, We in Australia have not done well at diplomacy, I think forever, (but)… and a more friendly, detached, well talked out position would be desirable. USA and Russia are not going to grow, dominate, recede or fail greatly, but, China is growing naturally after being surrounded for centuries by the filth and degradation of imperialism and evil drives by others. Its past has spiritual religion, better than any, able to accommodate new and sensible attitudes, being more balanced in philosophy than others. Major religions usually rot every fibre of intellect, morals, ethics, decent peaceful resolve, unless ovelain with a desire to discuss, learn, resolve, address and be diplomatic. Logic, reason, science are all essential from now. The impetuous reliance on some selfish faith. dogma, spirit or superstition must go. Above all, bone hard fixations do not serve us well.

  2. Michael Taylor

    Thank you, Phil, for your reasoned comment. It is a rare thing to see in Binoy’s posts.

  3. Harry Lime

    Despite the sheer relief of the dis election of the Morrison Shitshow,we remain the unofficial 51ST State of the corporatocracy of the alleged democracy of the US of A.So far, it looks like business as usual for our new Feds,albeit with a less offensive front row.The radical changes we so desperately need, look as far away as ever,50,000 sq K m2 of gas and oil exploration in our oceans?Fuck right off.All we’ve done is swap the drivers. When will the nightmare end? And when will we get a government with balls?

  4. Michael Taylor

    China is the elephant in the room as far as Australia is concerned.

    It’s a hard act to balance.

    What is more important to Australia? America’s military might, or China’s trade?

    A number of the articles linked by Dr Binoy seem to favour the military strength of America.

    Either way, Australia could come out a loser.

  5. paul walter

    Devil you know…In the end, both are exploiters.

  6. paul walter

    Y’know, for a mo I thought of the bloke from Crikey and Lachlan’s thuggery. and realised their Spears is not the Spiers now on ABC, Anyway, it seems more Bernared Keane they might be after; a much truer journo.

    Lachlan is only doing it for the publicity and as a demonstration of power, but Murdochs always bristle at any questioning of what they do and how they do it.

  7. Claudio Pompili

    Hear hear

  8. A Commentator

    ** Just a reminder – United Nations voting doesn’t use a system of proportional representation.
    ** There were only 5 countries that voted against the resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
    That’s probably about 3% of the world’s population

  9. Canguro

    AC, there’s more to the story. You don’t mention the abstainers.

    Yes, five countries voted against the resolution; North Korea, Eritrea, Syria, Russia and Belarus.

    You were close in your population estimate; it’s actually 2.53% of the world’s population.

    Of the 181 countries who were in assembly, 141 voted to condemn, 5 voted against, and the balance of 35 abstained.

    Abstainers included Iraq, Iran, India, Pakistan, and China; whose aggregate population sums to 39.33% of the global total.

    Adding that figure to the 2.53% gives nearly 42% of the global total, a figure far in excess of your figure of 3%

    I think it’s a fair assessment to say that abstainers are a version of no-voters, just a slightly lighter shade. As the essay concludes, along with the other countries abstaining, the total rises from 42% to 51%.

    Accepting your argument that the UN voting doesn’t use a system of proportional representation, but also acknowledging that the representatives of each nation are just that, empowered to act on behalf of their populations, you could say that, like many electoral outcomes, there is an almost even divide in opinion for the pros & contras – those wiling to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and those unwilling to do so.

  10. A Commentator

    Abstaining means abstaining. It means neither support nor opposition, so it is disingenuous to try to interpret abstaining as any form of support for Russia. Only the most brutal autocratic regimes voted against the resolution.

  11. Phil Pryor

    A G O A T is used to support the concept of a greatest of all time. We have a goat here, but merely a capra hircus, who does not follow the requirements of the law, perhaps like Xi or Putin in his eyes, which is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It is disgusting, unintelligent, and devious to be fixated, narrow, obsessive and divisive when a decent discussion might achieve something in a forum dedicated to seeking that truth the law requires. (It is Friday the double thirteenth…)

  12. len

    For decades successive govts have been happy to trade away advantages for song eg. Howard’s 25 yr fixed price sale of gas to China. We happily exported manufacturing offshore to the point we are now even a net importer of food by value. We were happy to trade with China even though the CCP controlled an anti-human organ-harvesting industry and we turned a blind eye to the incarceration and “re-education” of the minority groups such as the Islamic Uighur and Buddhist of Tibet. We were happy to sell off much of the farm and the mines and the ports to Chinese interests who maintained the illusion of local control by inserting “Aussies” in managerial roles in business set up here for that purpose. What kind of idiots are our politicians?
    But as soon as the CCP turned up in nearby Pacific neighbours, currying favours with easily corrupted officials and setting the stage for military bases, the penny drops. As soon as it looked like the gravy train that served the Aussie elite so well for decades was in danger of getting derailed by communist there is protest. And they cannot see their complicity in our situation. And the gullible support the CCP. What an unobservant lot.

  13. Douglas Pritchard

    Abstainers DID NOT support a motion to condemn Russias Invasion of Ukraine.
    They may have followed “Bald and Bankrupt” during his utube expose of “Solo through war-torn Donbass” which was shot a year prior to Putins cheeky invasion.
    Ukrainian folk who featured in this film dispel the Myth that its a united country just getting on with life in native costume and singing delightful ditties……..and obviously our absolute besties because we are digging into taxpayers funds seemingly forever.

  14. Phil Pryor

    Today, Sunday28, and J Bolton, an old discarded pile of seething refuse, is illustrating why the USA has declined and is not doing well in world affairs, diplomacy, internal social harmony, positive outlook. Bolton represented his country without merit in many posts, bringing a grand elevated obscurity and brusqueness to his work. Never failing to insinuate that he and his nation were great, misunderstood and would be heard anyway, Bolton has upped the strident outbursts in his irrelevancy of retirement, but Trumpism has him involved in intrusion and attention seeking, popular public hobbies in USA society. It’s not that Bolton is either right and wrong, something he achieved simultaneously at times, but that he must, must be noticed, heard and offerred a grovelling acquiescence, submissively, passively and with a smile. Hallelujah and amen to these pronouncements, which will attract some deired support. But war goes on, warmongering goes n, sabre rattling remains the only diplomatic tool for Bolton and it has never worked well for us,the USA or the original perpetrator. Be pessimistic…for if Taiwan disappeared, atomised, no Taiwanese left alive, and the USA had a million fewer deaths than China in a pointless ultimate thermonuclear war, Bolton would claim success, from the bunker he undoubtedly believes he deserves, for essential survival of the great class of servants of the USA of course.

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