April 21, 2011
by John Lee
Julia Gillard's trip to Asia will call in on three of our four biggest trading partners.
While no one doubts the importance of Japan and South Korea, attention will focus predominantly on her visit to China. The equivalent of a modern-day holy grail in Australian foreign policy circles is a comprehensive and overarching framework to guide Australia-China policy well into the future.
The Prime Minister has admitted previously that foreign policy is not her forte, and no one in Canberra or Beijing is expecting any attempts at a breakthrough in the Australia-China relationship during the next few days.
Let's hope these predictions are correct. For the moment, lowering Australian, but more important Chinese, expectations for such a breakthrough is the more prudent strategic and diplomatic approach. Which means, paradoxically, Gillard's lack of foreign policy experience and ambition could well be a blessing in disguise.
First, we need some context to the foreign policy dilemma facing Australia. For the best part of 100 years, the sure path for Australian strategic policy has been to attach ourselves to the dominant naval power in the region. Fortuitously, Britain and then the US also happened to be our most important trading partner. But for the first time in Australian history, our leading trading partner is no longer our strategic ally.
Making the dilemma even more diabolical is the fact China is already the primary strategic competitor to our American security guarantor and ally. That China could just as well become a strategic partner or enemy of the Americans in the future adds extra confusion to the mix.
The search for a foreign policy grand strategy that will allow Australia to manage. if not decisively resolve, these dilemmas is an alluring one. Yet the pursuit of an important breakthrough with China can be dangerous.
The key is to see the world as Beijing sees it. Without hyperbole, China is probably the loneliest rising power in history.
Distrusted by every leading power with interests in Asia, it has few genuine friends and allies outside North Korea, Burma and possibly Pakistan, allies that are proving a liability as much as an asset. Despite China's growing importance to the world economy, Beijing has watched all leading regional capitals move closer to Washington in strategic terms even as their trade with China deepens.
Moreover, authoritarian China is rising as an outlier of the "democratic community" that has emerged in the region under American leadership since World War II.
It has not escaped Beijing that the explicit rationale for economic and other engagement with China since the Bill Clinton presidency onwards has been to hasten the process of political reform in China.
Even if Washington is gradually admitting failure on this account, Beijing remains convinced that other major democracies will never fully accept the legitimacy of Chinese regional leadership until the Chinese Communist Party loosens its grip on political power.
As Tuesday's editorial in China's state-run Global Times international newspaper puts it, the US and its allies are using the fig-leaf of democracy to isolate and weaken China, which, notes the editorial, is precisely what these powers did to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Whether this is Chinese prescience or paranoia is beside the point. What is relevant is that Beijing views winning friends and influencing people as an unavoidably competitive and zero-sum game with the other large powers, particularly the US. In this respect, any breakthrough or improvement in strategic co-operation between Australia and China is accepted as genuine only if it involves a corresponding distancing of our strategic relations with the US.
Anything else is misrepresentation or else tactical bluff.
Close examination of conversations and debates between Chinese officials and strategists when the Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd came to power in late 2007 will confirm that this is indeed how Beijing thinks.
The fact one of Rudd's first foreign policy decisions as leader was to ask his then foreign minister Stephen Smith to unilaterally withdraw from the Quadrilateral Initiative (involving the US, Japan, India and Australia) while standing next to his Chinese counterpart Wang Jiechi gave Beijing the impression that Canberra's move away from the US and towards the Chinese sphere of influence had begun. That Rudd visited China but not Japan on his first overseas trip in Asia reconfirmed that impression to the Chinese.
The lows in the Australia-China relationship in 2009-10 occurred partly because Beijing's raised expectations in its zero-sum view of co-operation with Canberra were subsequently let down.
As a middle power in a world of giants, modesty has its virtues. Until our experts do the hard work of calculating where we have leverage over China and the areas in which we must clearly concede - and this has hardly begun - seeking the holy grail of modern Australian foreign policy is better left alone. Rudd had immense ambition to chart a new history of breakthroughs in Australia-China relations. In doing so, the former leader inadvertently mismanaged Chinese expectations and ultimately lost control of the relationship. In contrast, Gillard's lack of interest in foreign affairs is not an advisable trait in any national leader. But her lack of ambition in wanting some historic breakthrough and co-operation should ensure that no expectations are falsely raised in Beijing next week.
John Lee is a Hudson Institute Visiting Fellow and an Adjunct Associate Professor and Michael Hintze Fellow for Energy Security at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is the author of Will China Fail? (CIS, 2008).
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