Australia's China Challenge
Image Credit: Office of the Prime Minister: Australia (Flickr)

Australia's China Challenge

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In 2009, the Rudd government in Australia issued the first White Paper on Defense for almost a decade. The line on China in that was stark: “The pace, scope and structure of China's military modernization have the potential to give its neighbors cause for concern if not carefully explained.” The report also noted that “there is likely to be a question in the minds of regional states about the long-term strategic purpose of [China’s] force development plans, particularly as the modernization appears potentially to be beyond the scope of what would be required for a conflict over Taiwan.”

Only four years later, and the new White Paper issued by the Australian government of Julia Gillard has a very different tone. “Australia welcomes China’s rise,” it states, “not just because of the social and economic benefits it has brought China’s people, but also in recognition of the benefits that it has delivered to states around the globe.”

How can one account for the journey from the first 2009 statement and the second a few years later? What has changed? In many ways, evidence of Chinese assertiveness is greater now than it was back then. Not only has China continued to press its case strongly on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, but Chinese academics, have started to even express interests in sovereignty concerning Okinawa. In view of this, why the positive note of the latest paper?

Some have been acidly critical in the latest more benign stance. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, John Garnaut, one of the most gifted journalists currently covering China wrote: “The Gillard white paper talks the language of benign friendship and, simultaneously, reflects a retreat in the face of formidable Chinese power.” But perhaps another view might be that the latest paper is far more pragmatic than the 2009 one. And if there is one thing that can be attributed safely to the leaders in Beijing, and to those that most successfully engage with them, it is pragmatism.

The difference between 2009 to 2013 maps out a space which has been far more full of fear than most observers might think. Australian has, since the 1980s, been contemplating an economic future in which it is more profoundly part of Asia. By 2013, this had already happened. The traditional business links with Europe and America have been overtaken by a situation now where China has become the largest trade partner, and its investments in the country, while still proportionally small, are rising fast. Strategically, though, things are more complicated. The schizophrenic nature of these White Papers testifies to this.

For China’s economic clout also translates into political influence as well. It has many more sticks and carrots to hold out for those it wishes to influence than ever before. The potential costs of irritating or clashing with China on issues have risen. And the differences in the political systems between Australia and China can’t be fudged. Decision-making dynamics, governance and participation in decision-making in both places are very different.  This is a hard place to be in for a country like Australia where the economic links are now becoming so deeply integrated with China.

In 2009, the Rudd government adopted a more strident tone, and had a more antagonistic relation with China. Under Gillard, the strategy is more to deal with the challenges through harmony, win-win and a vision of cooperation. This debate in Australia is highly unlikely to end here. The White Papers are evidence of a profound underlying debate within the soul of this country about how it deals with a historic transition where a developing country for the first time is becoming one of the great engines of global growth. Having a strategy that alienates and antagonizes is going to be tough. But wholly dispelling the concerns and fears is also unlikely to work. The likelihood is that this debate will get harder in the years ahead, and the White Papers will appear way more frequently than they did in the past.

Kerry Brown is Executive Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and Professor of Chinese Politics. He was previously Head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House. He leads the Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN) funded by the European Union (www.euecran.eu).

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