Lonely Australia – are we failing to engage in the conversation of the Asian region?

Is Australia out of kilter with our region? How aware are we of the genuine transformation taking place? The questions may not have mattered so much in the heyday of our United States Alliance – but today, though we may not always agree with our neighbours, it is increasingly dangerous to be left out of the regional conversation.

We are, it is true, focusing more and more on China. Our preoccupations, however, seem narrow, limited and consistently negative – certainly in contrast to the commentary from the Asialink survey.

Australian commentary has tended to focus on China’s investment in Australia, China’s attempts to influence our public debate and political decisions, and the need to push back China in the South China Sea.

We have begun to talk about China threatening Australian sovereignty. Many of these concerns resonate across the Asian region, but the overall Australian negativity is striking, especially given that we are more economically entangled with China than any of our neighbours.[i] Our wholesale, one-sided commitment to United States leadership in the region – even in the face of the decline of American pre-eminence and the uncertainties of the Trump administration– reinforces the sense of distance between Australian and regional perspectives. It is an impression strengthened by recent opinion polling in Australia, showing an expansion not reduction of support for the United States alliance over the last year, a seven-point increase in the number of people (now 56%) seeing China as a military threat, and a strong preference for New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom – Anglosphere countries – as Australia’s closest friends. There is also a marked lack of warmth in Australian attitudes toward our closest neighbour, Indonesia – the largest Muslim country in the world.[ii]

To get a sense of the conversation beyond Australia, Asialink has interviewed a range of leading commentators from across the Asian region – gauging responses to China’s move toward regional and international leadership, particularly represented by its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or One Belt One Road. We asked to what extent China is perceived as offering a new ‘grand design’ for the world. We asked what opportunities and risks the BRI entailed. We sought personal opinions, and also requested comment on likely national viewpoints on Chinese leadership.

In terms of anxieties shared with our neighbours, the commentators here do raise questions about transparency and good governance in China’s transactions, and the possible opportunities for corruption. They ask as well whether Chinese investments will benefit Chinese rather than other national interests most of all. The “Chinese model” is questioned by Mahendra Ved from India, who argues it is “always one of putting in its own personnel, its own funds and material wherever it undertakes projects abroad”. Another issue is whether there will be a genuine transfer of technology from China to partner states. Also, will such partners be obliged to borrow too heavily from China – and can countries receiving Chinese investments “maintain control over subsequent operations/services”? Even Chinese commentators themselves recognise the challenges, with Professor Shen Dingli stating that the risks are whether or not “the partners can repay [sic]”. Whether these investments are likely to serve strategic as much as commercial interests is an obvious anxiety. Tourism, as Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap from Thailand put it, is an area where the Chinese government could implement strategies “to punish any Asian governments”.

In some quarters in Southeast Asia, as in Australia, there is a “trust deficit” regarding China – a sense, as Professor Aileen S.P. Baviera from the Philippines puts it, that China “does not enjoy much soft power”.  For Japan, not surprisingly, China’s leadership vision suggests an “expansionist attitude” which could provoke international opposition and – as Professor Narushige Michishita points out – “divide the region”. In some quarters in India the ‘grand design’ of China is provoking (in Mahendra Ved’s words) a “grand fear”. From India too, Brig Arun Sahgal fears that some countries will “compromise their liberal values and free market principles” in order to gain economically from China.

Some concerns about China’s leadership are more specific to particular Asian societies. Kavi Chongkittavorn from Thailand points to the likely demographic impact of “the rapid movement of workers, businessmen and travellers” from Southern China. The social consequences of flows from that enormously populous region could be far-reaching. Also, as Khor Yu Leng from Malaysia explains, China’s focus on “sub-national units” – such as the Malaysian State, Johor – could undermine current national and inter-state projects. In Indonesia – as viewed by Adriana Elisabeth – there is a degree of historic anti-Chinese sentiment that “potentially disrupts foreign direct investment/FDI from China”. Malaysia’s Dato’ M Redzuan Kushairi suggests that “China’s authoritarianism” could well be a “model or encouragement” for certain other countries in the region.

Where the Asian commentator response seems immediately different from Australian deliberations, however, is in its focus on China’s serious claim to leadership – and its comprehension of the deep strategic transformation at present underway. The response to China is by no means always positive, but it does acknowledge time and again that the American role is declining in importance, and China is offering to fill that vacuum. China, in the words of the Chancellor of the University of Malaya, Sultan Nazrin Shah, is developing for the region and the world a new ‘grand design’. From time to time in world history, the Chancellor suggests, ‘grand designs’ have been formulated – and today, although “fraught with many challenges and uncertainties”, China has a Belt and Road Initiative that aims to “stimulate transcontinental trade and cultural exchange to a level not known before”.

There is, it is true, a certain hesitation among our Chinese commentators about China’s assertion of leadership. Professor Liu Aming prefers to use the word ‘partnership’ rather than ‘leadership’ – but she also knows that China “is a big power” and will therefore be “more influential than many other countries”. Professor Zha Daojiong insists that China is “but one of the many players in the BRI endeavour” but he also admits that “some rhetoric out of China” is claiming “regional and international leadership”. Professor Xue Li says China will find it “almost impossible” to become “a comprehensive global power”. Despite this caution, however, there is also an acknowledgement that the role of the United States is now reduced. President Trump draws attention to this – as Zha notes – when he declares that he represents the United States not the world. Associate Professor Chen Hong also states that China is “opposed to isolationism and protectionism” and is willing to make a “significant contribution” to the regional and international order.

The sense of leadership vacuum must be acute in China – but it is the regional commentators from outside China who are more open about the United States’ decline, and China’s renewed leadership. Jusuf Wanandi from Indonesia believes that China is convinced “US leadership under President Trump has left the international order with lacuna and gaps” that China must try to “fill in with her ‘grand design’”. Kavi reminds us that China (presumably unlike the US) “is here to stay”. A Cambodian analyst who prefers to remain unnamed notes the “Washington consensus” is “in decline”. Termsak Chalermpalanupap from Thailand believes the US simply has “no capability” to give the leadership in infrastructure development that China is providing. A recent online survey of ASEAN opinion found 71.7% of the respondents believe the US global image has either deteriorated or deteriorated immensely under the Trump administration, and 56.6% expect the US level of engagement with Southeast will decline. As to which country is now most influential in Southeast Asia, 73.6% nominate China – and only 3.5% choose the US.[iii]

The Asian commentators – whether supportive or opposed – seem to be in no doubt of the far-reaching importance of China’s assertion of leadership. It is an assertion, as our Cambodian commentator suggests, based on two thousand years of relations with Southeast Asia. Singapore – as Kwa Chong Guan sees things – will have no choice about responding to China’s ‘grand design’ – just as it had to respond in the “1960s through to the 1980s”to “American visions of modernizing societies”. The phrase ‘grand design’ certainly rings true for several of our commentators: Termsak sees it as “offering concrete ideas” and Redzuan recognises China as developing a “grand geo-political strategy … to gain acceptance as a new world power”. It is a ‘design’, he says, that includes a “model of State Capitalism, State driven development and the important role of State Owned Enterprises”. Jusuf Wanandi noting that Trump’s America is leaving a vacuum, believes that “China’s increasing role should be encouraged”.

Other positive regional observations about China reflect local preoccupations of less immediate relevance to Australia. More specifically, the China relationship can help Cambodia in its struggles with Thailand and Vietnam – large and “ambitious” neighbours. For some in Asia it is also an advantage that – unlike the US – China claims not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. This said, in Malaysia there has been a Chinese “activist ambassador” (as Khor Yu Leng describes him) appearing to take the part of the local Chinese community in ethnic confrontations. The struggle in the South China Sea, of course, concerns Southeast Asia countries as it does Australia - but their angle of vision is different. They are on the front line – and yet, as Khor stresses, they tend to see the territorial disputes in the context of a broader China relationship, and they seek some form of accommodation rather than confrontation. The Southeast Asians would seem to advocate their case less ardently than the United States has done – or than some quarters in Australia have urged.

This survey presents us with three particular takeaways.  First, a Southeast Asian perspective worth noting by Australians is the suggestion that we are currently seeing not one great power being replaced by another but rather the emergence of a “multi hub and multi partnership structure in international relations”. To be effective in this system, as Redzuan sees it, ASEAN unity needs to be maintained. It would “be a mistake” for any ASEAN member to “think it could benefit more by handling China on its own”. Jusuf Wanandi does not want China to dominate, as the US has done since World War II.  It will be essential, he says, for cooperation not to be “a one-way street”. Southeast Asians, it would seem, are comfortable with a multi-hub structure – they believe it gives them a degree of autonomy or elbow room. Singapore Diplomat, Bilahari Kausikan has written that “the preferred strategy” for ASEAN countries is “to maximise autonomy by keeping options open and maintaining the best possible relationship with all the major powers”. This is unfamiliar territory for alliance-dependent Australians.

A second take-away from this survey is a partial answer to whether China’s rise will require a re-writing of ‘the rules’ in international interaction. Arun Sahgal is extremely wary. The Chinese, he says, are known for their “orchestrated manipulations of rules and norms”. Professor Tomoo Kikuchi similarly cautions that “China’s weight will change the rule of the game”. Kwa observes that “many of us have become accustomed to the old OECD aid norms” and now we “have to make sense of China’s emerging decision making processes”. Baviera, however, predicts that China “is more likely to copy and adjust existing rules than make new ones”. Jusuf Wanandi judges that there will be no need to “replace all the old rules and institutions” – but some change will be necessary since these old rules “were established by the Western countries”.

The third and most important reflection arising from this survey simply concerns awareness. Australia appears to be distant from the Asian region in the sense of being less focused, less aware, of the extent to which the existing regional and global order is under challenge. As Dr S. Mahmud Ali states, “China-rooted anxiety” is a “natural response to China’s ‘rejuvenation’ after a long period of absence” but “regional actors are more comfortable, for their own national reasons, with China’s growing clout.” In a possible post-American era – a period where we cannot depend on the United States’ hegemony – Australia could become a lonely country, unless we listen and collaborate closely with our neighbours.

View the full set of survey responses here.

[ii] https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/2017-lowy-institute-poll

[iii] ‘How do Southeast Asians view the Trump Administration’, ASEANFocus, 2/2017, Mar/Apr 2017, 12-13

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Jennifer Fang

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