Sunday, March 12, 2017

Beijing waits for Canberra to make ‘the China choice’

Beijing waits for Canberra to make ‘the China choice’

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing. Picture: AFP
  • The Australian
China is preoccupied with domestic and global issues galore.
Although Australia is not at the front of Beijing’s thoughts, we are not as remote or exotic as it seemed a decade ago when the rise of a Mandarin speaker as prime minister was mind-blowing for many Chinese.
The range and depth of engagement is now vast. Within Chinese universities there are 31 Australian Studies centres — almost as many as there are at Australian institutions.
A conference was held at the weekend at the Foreign Studies University in Beijing on “China, the US and Australia Relations in the Trump Era”. The prelude to the conference was the launch of the first “blue book” — published in Chinese — on developments in Australia and in Australia-China relations, which will become an annual review.
It came soon after a flurry of excitement in Chinese foreign-­affairs circles when Australia’s ambassadors were “recalled” for a meeting in Canberra.
This sparked thoughts that maybe — after the rudeness of the Donald Trump phone call with Malcolm Turnbull and his dumping of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and with China dominating Australian trade as much as ever with commodity prices powering back, and with the South China Sea issue sorted, according to Beijing — Canberra is at last seeing the light and contemplating stepping away from the US alliance.
But no. The better-informed conference speakers explained that the alliance would remain, and that the ambassadors were returning mainly to add their thoughts to the foreign-affairs white paper being drafted.
The notion of the alliance coming under review fitted the most common narrative on Australia in China — often spruiked in the US too — that Australia is confronted with a choice between the US and China.
This comes, of course, from academic and former defence mandarin Hugh White’s influential thesis. White is bright and persuasive but there is in fact no compulsion to choose between allies, friends and economic partners, and Australia’s successful broad shift towards Asia has not required our simultaneous rejection of the rest of the world either.
But Beijing views all alliances with the painful awareness that its sole ally is North Korea. It is understandable that Foreign Minister Wang Yi praised President Xi Jinping last week for “rejecting the old concepts of alliance and confrontation”.
Australia’s devotion to the US alliance was once mostly viewed in China as a need for stability and predictability. But after the rapid changes of the past year, some Chinese analysts view Australia’s persistence in the alliance as a sign of recalcitrance when it should make “the China choice”.
Han Feng, a professor of international strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said at the conference that the US, Australia and China “are all in the process of adjusting their foreign policy structures”.
He said that “because the Turnbull government is weak, it needs to build good relations with great powers to help it domestically”. The US, he said, remains “the base for Australia’s global influence”, and will maintain its military dominance for 20 years, although Trump requires such allies to “share the security burden”.
However, he predicted Australia would start to deal with the US in a more pragmatic way and “region-building would be more of a priority”.
As the shapes of our economies change, Han also anticipates that that core China-Australia engagement will also shift, from complementary to co-operative.
Wang Zhenyu, director of the China National Committee for Pacific Economic Co-operation, said China was not opposed, as often portrayed, to the TPP. It should remain a reference point for the development of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership “into which all the bilateral agreements between us should be wrapped up”.
He lambasted Trump’s threat not to abide by World Trade Organisation rulings. “He seems to have decided to ruin the WTO; that’s harmful not only to the rest of the world but to the US too.”
In the old days, he said, the US was worried about a line drawn against it across the Pacific: “Now that’s happening,” and America is drawing the line itself. East Asia, “still the locomotive for world growth, needs to stay resilient”.
Australia and China should work together, he said, “to assume a kind of collective leadership in promoting regional integration”.
Wang thought all three countries should join “to build the Belt and Road Initiative, creating a role model of engagement”.
Xu Xiujun, a deputy director at the Institute of World Economics and Politics at CASS, said Australia was now a more important player in co-operation between the Western and developing worlds, and “a key country in the maritime silk road” that is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
He said the BRI and Canberra’s vision for developing Northern Australia had great synergy.
Chen Hong, director of the Australian Studies Centre at East China Normal University, sees Beijing now taking a different stance from the “China choice” analysts — noting that although the Foreign Minister previously had attacked the ANZUS alliance as a Cold War legacy, on his recent visit to Australia he assumed it would remain a US ally while also remaining a comprehensive strategic partner of China.
This “new and interesting” position, Chen said, might prove a pointer to other countries hesitating between the US and China.
Greg McCarthy, chairman of Australian Studies at Beijing University, said that when the US “reached out to the world” after World War II, it emanated from its domestic optimism. More dystopic domestic attitudes will naturally change its external approach.
The US alliance, he said, was based on a philosophy and on values. What now, he asked, as the rules-based global system fractures and commitment to those values wavers?