SOME of my best friends are Chinese. These days I spend quite a bit of time in the
People’s Republic of China. Next year I plan to spend a few months at leading
universities in Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai. Some of my expenses are likely to be picked up by my hosts. Clearly, I’m hopelessly compromised and not capable of taking an objective view of Australia’s most contentious bilateral relationship, right?
Perhaps so. But it’s worth asking a simple question: would anyone in Australia be similarly concerned if I was off to the US on a Fulbright Fellowship? Hardly – even in the unlikely event that someone like me actually got one.
It is simply a matter of fact that in Australia completely different standards and attitudes apply to relationships with the US and China. There’s nothing surprising or even necessarily wrong about this given Australia’s history, political traditions and congenital sense of insecurity. But it’s worth keeping in mind when thinking about the nature of “Australia’s” foreign and strategic policies and the way they are perceived elsewhere.
The scare quotes are merited because in reality Australia’s policy positions are actually developed by a handful of people in Canberra who claim to speak on behalf of the nation. The limited numbers of outsiders who have some influence over policy also tend to congregate in Canberra and operate in its clubby, insular policy environment.
Even alleged “radicals” succumb to its influence. It is striking that the likes of Paul Keating and Bob Carr offered little public criticism of the conventional wisdom about the importance of the alliance with the US, for example, while they were actually in a position to do something about it.
The suggestion that Carr has changed his tune because his Australia-China Relations Institute has received funding from one of the burgeoning ranks of Chinese billionaires misses a more fundamental point: the policymaking establishment seems quite incapable of escaping a rather stultifying groupthink while actually in office. This is not to say that outside forces aren’t trying to influence the policymaking process. Of course they are. That’s what governments do; so does ours. What distinguishes the efforts of some governments is that they are actually welcomed and encouraged, while some are seen as subverting the national interest and compromising the security of the nation.
When John Howard established the United States Studies Centre in 2006, for example, there is little doubt that its primary role was to rehabilitate a relationship that had been badly damaged by the presidency of George W. Bush and Australia’s subsequent – entirely predictable – participation in the war in Iraq. Yet there was remarkably little opposition to, or debate about, spending public money in a partisan effort to bolster the soft power of a foreign government.
As Carr has recently pointed out, not much has changed in this regard: the Australian Policy Institute under the leadership of its omnipresent director, Peter Jennings, is another influential think tank that promulgates a consistently “one-sided, pro-American view of the world.”
The uncritical groupthink that underpins the Canberra consensus has important consequences. Most importantly, perhaps, as Hugh White’s recent timely analysis of Australia’s geopolitical context and options has pointed out, is the complete failure to acknowledge that “we are, most probably, soon going to find ourselves in an Asia dominated by China, where America plays little or no strategic role at all.”
It is not simply the fact that the Trump administration is an erratic and unreliable strategic partner that makes Australia’s current policy settings so questionable, but that there has been so little debate about possible alternatives. It seems literally unthinkable for many in Canberra to consider a world in which the US is not ascendant or the foundation of our national security.
The idea that we might treat all foreign powers rather more even-handedly will strike some observers – especially in Canberra – as strategically illiterate at best, downright treasonous at worst. Why we should feel relaxed and comfortable about any other country having a privileged position in “our” national policy debate is a moot point that is itself worthy of discussion.
But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’ve clearly been nobbled and/or beguiled by my Chinese chums. Maybe. But being sympathetic doesn’t mean being blind either. There is much to be concerned about from an Australian perspective about China’s domestic and foreign policies. But there’s currently even more to be concerned about in Trump’s America. At least Australians won’t have to fight on China’s behalf in yet another war in which we have no direct strategic stake. Being able to view all of Australia’s key bilateral relationships a little more critically and dispassionately has got to be in the proverbial “national interest,” hasn’t it?
[The author is a professor of international politics at the University of Western Australia. [email protected]]