Please explain: Australia's confused China strategy

By Colin Heseltine, Former Australian Diplomat

Australia’s relations with China are at an historic low. In this situation, former diplomat Colin Heseltine argues, we would expect government to tell the people what strategy lies behind its China policy. But the lack of public explanation from both sides of politics on a major foreign policy matter is “unprecedented – and worrying”.

The Federal Government, as widely anticipated, last week overturned Victoria’s memorandum of understanding with China which provided a broad non-binding framework for cooperation in Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects.

The government continues to insist that it wants a cooperative relationship with China. Foreign Minister Payne, in announcing the BRI decision, said that Australia’s Foreign Relations Bill (which provides the legal basis to overturn the MoU), does not target any single country; to demonstrate this (and presumably to provide cover for it), she also announced the overturning of two insignificant arrangements with Iran and Syria from 17 and 21 years ago respectively. Payne also said she doesn’t expect any retaliation from China.

The Chinese Embassy, however, has described the decision as unreasonable and provocative, and bound to bring further damage to bilateral relations. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman and the nationalistic Global Times in Beijing have foreshadowed serious consequences.

Is anyone confused with these contradictory messages? If you are, I can assure you that you’re not alone.

Payne declared Victoria’s MoU to be inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy and yet Federal Government leaders, including both Prime Ministers Turnbull and Morrison, in the past expressed support for Australian participation in BRI projects. How BRI threatens any Australian interest, given that any project in Australia will be rigorously subject to foreign investment and other laws, has never been explained.

And why all the fuss over Victoria’s MoU when any Australian company will be able to enter into BRI deals, subject to Australian laws, with or without the MoU?

Apart from the Government’s BRI decision, there is a bigger, and more worrying, issue here. As relations with China continue on their downward spiral, the Government has failed to provide any convincing narrative about why it is allowing this to happen. It argues that Australia has done nothing wrong — it’s all China’s fault — and offers only broad and mostly meaningless assertions about protecting our values and sovereignty, neither of which has ever been seriously threatened.

The Prime Minister himself has said that China presents an enormous challenge to Australia. On this he is absolutely correct. In fact, Australia has not faced such a complex foreign policy test since the Second World War. China’s increased confrontation with the United States, our major security partner; its extraordinary and rapid growth in economic and military power, leading to its growing and more assertive regional and global role; its economic interdependence with much of the developed world including the United States and Australia; and its vastly different political system and values, all make for a complicated and difficult foreign policy mix, the like of which we have never seen before.

Marise Payne and Wang Yi
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne meets with her counterpart Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Beijing, China - November 8, 2018. Image credit: @MarisePayne, Twitter.

Australia, of course, is not alone in having to deal with this challenge. But among our regional neighbours, and most other western developed countries, we have pushed back harder, and more loudly, against actions by China with which we oppose. Relations are now at the lowest point since their official establishment in 1972; Australia has already paid a significant economic price and, no doubt, there is more to come.

In this situation, you would expect the Government to go to considerable lengths to explain to the Australian people the strategy behind its China policy, what our objectives are, and how we envisage achieving them. It might also explain where it sees the current approach heading; how our interests are being served, given that substantial economic losses are impacting on certain sectors of the economy, with the likelihood of more; and how Australia’s inability to engage at senior political level with the most powerful country in our region, which, like it or not, will have a major impact on future generations of Australians, works to our benefit?

Is it too cynical to suggest that the Government feels it has no need to provide a strategic narrative because, it seems, a very large number of Australians now view China in such negative terms that “pushing back”, irrespective of the cost, is seen positively? The mainstream media appears to be on a unity ticket in reporting negatively about China and encouraging pushback against it, with little serious analysis of the consequences.

And where is the federal Opposition in all of this? Surely, if there are difficult questions about the long-term impact of Australia’s current approach to China, it should be asking them. And yet, the Opposition appears to have been effectively wedged into supporting the Government’s position, apart from occasional efforts to differentiate its policy approach on minor matters.

For an issue of such major foreign policy importance, this is surely unprecedented – and worrying.

Foreign policy strategy requires the alignment of national goals with national resources. This can be a complex and demanding exercise. In a democracy, when vital national interests are involved, as they are with China, an integral part of the process should be to explain to the public why a particular course is being pursued. Passing generalities about protecting our values and sovereignty without explaining what these are, and how they are being undermined by China, are not sufficient. Repeating over and over the mantra that we want cooperation with China while continuing to pursue measures that have the opposite impact lacks coherency.

In foreign relations, we find more often than not we must accept and deal with the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. Wishful thinking is not a strategy. Our regional neighbours for the most part understand this; increasingly we are the regional outlier.

Colin Heseltine was Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea (2001-05), head of Australia's representative office in Taiwan (1992-97) and deputy head of mission in the Australian embassy in Beijing (1982-85 and 1988-92). He also was a board member of Sino Gas and Energy (2011-18), an Australian-listed company developing unconventional gas assets in Shanxi province, China.

Banner image: Australian PM Scott Morrison meets with Vice President of the People's Republic of China Wang Qishan, Jakarta, Indonesia - October 20, 2019. Credit: Australian Embassy Jakarta, Flickr.