Monday 30 Nov 2020 | 22:58 | SYDNEY
Monday 30 Nov 2020 | 22:58 | SYDNEY


Graeme Dobell

15 September 2010 08:44

Australia's choices about China will obviously be shaped by the ratio of kiss-to-kick that emanates from Beijing. Canberra has had its share of bruises recently, but also plenty of bouquets.

China would love to be able to treat Australia as a special or model relationship, with Beijing setting both terms and direction. Note John Garnaut's story about a Chinese military strategist, Rear Admiral Yang Yi, talking up the idea of a high-level China-Australia forum on military capabilities, modernisation and intentions.

'Australia is special because it is a very important player in the region and because it has close relations with the US and also other powers, including India and Japan,' said Admiral Yang, who has co-written Chinese defence white papers. 'We do not have any intention to divide the allies.' Well, perhaps not divide. But certainly probe, push and test.

Talk of Australia as 'special' from the strategists sits beside the effort of the departing Chinese ambassador, spruiking a 'model relationship' between Australia and China because 'there is no conflict of interest, not in history nor in territory'.

Yet China poses huge questions for Australia — about trade, alliance and the shifting regional balance of power — which tear at or at least rumple Australian policy. Lowy polling tracks the growing understanding among Australians of the mixed blessings of China's rise: the trade bonanza is but one expression of a fundamental change in the neighbourhood power hierarchy. Andrew Shearer captures this shift with his perfectly titled 'Sweet and Sour'. Analysis: 

Australians are developing a more nuanced understanding of China's rise and what it means for Australia – one firmly grounded in economic and strategic realities and a shrewd awareness that China's authoritarian political system, assertive mercantilism and very different values are going to exacerbate the challenge it poses as its power grows.

As Andrew remarks, it is a stark moment that almost half of all Australians think our major trading partner may attack us within the next two decades. Thus, a major TV current affairs program can posit China as the 'next great threat to world peace' and illustrate the proposition with vision of an Australian navy ship going to war with 'an imaginary rogue superpower'.

Let us hope the discussion of what the China challenge means has many years yet to run. Edward Luttwak points this way with his comment that China is not an imminent military threat to the US or Australia, and may never be a military threat at all: 'The real challenge to American and Western strategy is far more subtle: a slow, not uncomfortable slide into subordination in a China-centred world, with the renminbi as its currency, Mandarin its language, and Beijing the undemocratic ultimate capital.'

Australia's prosperity may be at odds with our strategic interests. That tension between our economy and our security takes us to a debate we have never had to face before. Perhaps that is why Greg Sheridan got so heated in going the biff on Hugh White. Greg thinks the US will still get to decide. Hugh's great offence is to posit the growing power of China to decide.

In confronting this conundrum, Australia will need to leverage whatever 'model' or 'special' relationship it can construct with China. The tough part will be to do it on our terms, not those set by Beijing. Certainly, Australia has much with which to bargain – from mineral resources to that deeply valued US military alliance. (And we now have a new Foreign Minister with a great knowledge of China.)

But the sense of ambivalence and uncertainty – plus passionate argument — is driven by the reality that so much of the outcome will not be of our making. China will make the decisions about kiss or cajole.

Photo by Flickr user Steve Webel, used under a Creative Commons license.