Australia must get used to a new order with China as a major player

Chinese police

Michael Clarke and Matthew Sussex say Australia needs to consider the realities of a new arrangement in which China is a major power, rather than long for a bygone era of uncontested US supremacy. However, the new reality also gives Australia, as a middle power, fresh opportunities.

Australia’s recently released Foreign Policy White Paper has been hailed as a “hard-nosed” document that correctly identifies an international and regional order in flux thanks to factors ranging from technological disruption to climate change and the rise of China.

But it does not offer a coherent blueprint for responding to such significant forces of change. Instead, it prefers to loudly trumpet the strength of Australian values and international “rules” in shaping the regional order, with little to explain how this will endure, or how China will be co-opted into adhering to them, given that this has clearly not worked so far.

Despite explicitly acknowledging that “China is challenging America’s position” in the Indo-Pacific, the paper chooses a backward-looking approach, clearly pining for an era when US-led power, and US-led rules, were uncontested. It also relies on something Australia has little to no control over: the extent to which the United States will commit to anchoring security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

Whatever the outcome of that internal debate by US security policy elites – which predates Donald Trump and will outlast him – it will lock Australia either into underbalancing or overbalancing with respect to China. A significant proportion of the American public now openly question the desirability of sustaining American leadership, and the largely bipartisan post-cold-war elite consensus that sustained US primacy has been ruptured. Even counting Trump as an aberration assumes that the political support system of American primacy can be swiftly reconstructed.

As a hedge against a US drawdown, the white paper offers a network-centric approach to regional security in which Australia joins like-minded democracies. That’s a positive development, but an Indo-Pacific minus one (the US) is no substitute for continued US deep engagement. In fact, it is an underbalancing where Australia, Japan and others catch the buck the US passes.

The most recent version of this agenda to supplement US power and influence has been the revived US-Japan-India-Australia quadrilateral. It is not clear how the often-competing interests and variable capabilities of each member of the “Quad” can be resolved to ensure a region-wide balancing function in the Indo-Pacific strategic space. India has little interest in committing militarily to US-led alliances in the Pacific. Japan has limited force projection capabilities despite its defence “normalisation” efforts and Australia, as the white paper acknowledges, remains reliant on the US for power projection capabilities beyond its immediate neighbourhood.

If the US does remain embedded in regional security, the rush to reform the Quad risks overbalancing, clearly signalling to Beijing that US allies seek to contain it. There’s no problem with that as a strategy necessarily, although Australian elites are for some reason reticent about saying so, preferring instead to refer obliquely to “balancing”. That suggests some disagreement about the scope of the China challenge, notwithstanding that white papers are the products of multiple hands.

In fact, power in the Indo-Pacific, led by the US, is far from balanced – and a containment posture is fundamentally a balancing strategy. The paradox for Australian policymakers is that a more balanced Indo-Pacific is inimical to Australian interests because it inevitably reinforces the sense of choice between Australia’s main security ally (the US) and its major trading partner (China).

So what, if anything, can Australia do? To start with, it should stop conflating values with interests. Values are amorphous and rarely useful as a basis for constructing policy. They are important to justify policy rather to determine its contours.

If Australia’s white paper correctly identifies our enduring values as a key strength, they clearly haven’t succeeded in socialising China or persuading it to respect regional rules. While they reinforce domestic comfort during times when regional order is fixed, relying on them in times of geopolitical uncertainty will push Australia to take sides as that order is increasingly challenged.

Essentially, values are about having the will to do things, but that means nothing without the wherewithal. For instance, we are increasingly witnessing a fragmented European Union, in contrast to confident predictions about “soft power Europe” trumping hard material capabilities. China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, multilateral in aspiration but bilateral in function, is all about splitting smaller states – which might coalesce around values – using pragmatic economic carrots.

A more sober Australian foreign policy would be far more hard-nosed about its interests. Sometimes these will align with the US, sometimes with China. There is nothing damaging in the medium-term about a “hedge and balance” strategy in which Australia seeks a positive role in various models for regional order led by Beijing, Washington or others.

Let’s assume the white paper correctly characterises the future Indo-Pacific order as multipolar. Multipolar regional systems present great opportunities for middle-sized powers like Australia because they facilitate multi-vector foreign policies: having your cake and eating it too. On those grounds, there is no need to back away from the US alliance as the bedrock of our strategic policy, and every incentive to push back against Chinese probing of Australian alliance loyalty. But there is equally little sense in advocating a rules-based system whose principal architect is questioning whether it should keep leading it.

By failing to grasp these realities, Australia’s foreign policy white paper is a halfway house. It correctly diagnoses the symptoms of regional change, but prescribes an outdated cure. We may come to rue it as a missed opportunity.

This article first appeared in The South China Morning Post.

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Australia must get used to a new order with China as a major player

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