Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 13:38 | SYDNEY
Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 13:38 | SYDNEY

Australia-China: Curb your enthusiasm


Rory Medcalf


11 August 2010 15:24

What to make of this story in today's Sydney Morning Herald claiming a great leap forward in Australia's defence ties with China'

This could be good news, if true. As a trading power, China has a stake in the security of the global commons, such as sea lanes — a reason that deployments such as its anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia are to be expected and cautiously welcomed. I have long argued that Australia needs to be proactive in engaging the PLA, particularly its navy, at this early stage in China's long rise. At the very least, we need clear channels of communication to prevent misunderstandings at sea.

But of late, there have been troubling signs about the way China wants to develop and deploy its forces. Beijing seems determined single-handedly to set the terms and conditions for defence engagement. China continues to use defence diplomacy not as a practical tool for building trust and cooperation, but as a political football: a hostage to the stance taken by other countries on supposedly non-negotiable Chinese 'core interests' like Tibet, Taiwan and now, it would seem, the entire South China Sea.

This is hugely self-defeating for China, and gives pause even to some-time engagement advocates like yours truly.

One has to wonder what is the point of attempting to deepen defence cooperation with China when, in the reported words of Admiral Yang Yi: '...if one day Australia does some stupid things like the US, there's no doubt (military relations) will cut off.'

In any case, it is not clear that China's supposedly new-found willingness to expand practical defence dialogue with Australia is all that new, or whether it will really pave the way to such substantial measures as bilateral military exercises. Only a year ago, as was speculated here on The Interpreter, Beijing-Canberra relations were so bad that we seemed to need Washington's help and prompting to restore them.

Still, thanks to the reporters John Garnaut and Dan Oakes for pointing out an important truth that most of the Australian media has so far missed: China's moves to bolster military ties with Australia come during a federal election campaign where neither political party in Australia has squarely addressed foreign policy questions relating to the rising global power.

It is an indictment on the Australian media and political class in general that the election campaign so far has almost entirely neglected the fundamental strategic question of how this nation should respond to the vast power-shifts taking place in Asia. For a primer on this, our politicians and pundits could do much worse than turn to the Lowy Institute's recent publication, Power and Choice.