The arbitrary detention of two Canadians by Chinese authorities in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the request of the United States has become a much wider concern than its component parts. The issue reverberates far beyond the three states involved as it goes to the core of how states behave in the international system, and importantly whether China will choose to follow long-standing norms as its power increases, and whether it will project its authoritarian domestic nature into the international sphere.
For a middle power like Australia that cannot rely on acts of coercion to protect its interests, the maintenance of the rule of law is the essential component of its international relations. Every arbitrary exercise of power by states more powerful than itself poses a threat to Australia’s ability to engage confidently with the world. This should therefore make this issue one of serious interest to Canberra.
Yet, Australia has been slow to respond to these events, instead choosing to remain mostly aloof. It seems that Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne issued a statement to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation only after some internal pressure from a group of scholars concerned about the lack of solidarity shown toward Canada. However, this statement fell short of joining Canada, the European Union, Germany, France, Britain, and the United States in calling for the immediate release of the two Canadians. It simply expressed “concern” about their detention. Interestingly there is also no official media release on the foreign minister’s website, potentially an indication of just how low-key Canberra wants to keep its engagement.
This poses the question about why Australia seems so reluctant to engage in an issue that is so fundamental to its interests. The obvious answer is a fear of economic retaliation from Beijing. Australia’s economy remains far too reliant on China and this is compromising its ability to confront and challenge the revisionist inclinations of Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Yet this perspective acknowledges that Beijing is not a good faith actor. It makes the assumption that China will use its ability to coerce its companies and public in order to punish the companies and public of other countries. Once Canberra has submitted itself to this power relationship it gives Beijing tacit approval to use this form of manipulation, and makes Australia vulnerable to its continued use.
But in this approach lies not just a fear of economic retaliation, but a more general fear — or at least a lack of confidence in Australia’s own values, and a reluctance to both fully embrace and promote these values as an essential component of its external capabilities. While Australia may perceive its tip-toeing strategic calculation in relation to avoiding any overt solidarity with Canada over their detained citizens as “picking its battles,” it may be failing to see the larger war (so to speak).
Australia remaining quiet is exactly the kind of behavior Beijing wants from Canberra. It not only indicates that Beijing has the ability to influence the behavior of prominent middle powers, but also demonstrates that Beijing is able to chip away at alliances. If Canberra won’t speak up to defend Canada over the issue of arbitrary detention, then it is possible Canberra could be silent on other international norms Beijing wishes to challenge involving Australia’s friends and allies. Beijing’s lack of allies remains a prominent strategic weakness; separating alliances therefore has to be a strategic goal.
It should therefore be incumbent on Australia to recognize its wider self-interest and stand with its allies and friends to loudly signal to Beijing that arbitrary detention cannot become a normalized. This tactic cannot become the new cost of doing business with China, especially as Australia requires reciprocity in this regard. Staying silent in these matters may lessen the inclination of other states to speak in Australia’s defense, should Beijing use Australian citizens in its next attempt to subvert international norms.
The hope that China would engage with international norms in good faith as it ascended to great power status now seems misguided. It must be acknowledged that behavior such as the arbitrary detention of the two Canadian citizens is an inherent feature of the Leninist regime. The CCP sees Meng’s arrest as a political tactic because it only understands and approaches the world through this lens. The concept of the rule of law is in conflict with the party-state’s ethos; it lacks the ability to fully comprehend it. An arbitrary retaliatory response is the CCP’s natural approach.
For Australia quietly avoiding this reality will not enhance its ability to protect its interests. A reduced, less engaged Australia will only accentuate its security dilemma. Australia therefore needs to instead operate with the belief that middle powers like Australia and Canada — along with other allies and friends — do have the collective weight to act as a bulwark against the Beijing’s revisionist tendencies. But this requires active participation and confidence on Canberra’s behalf. Unfortunately, this participation — and its requisite ambition — currently seems to be lacking.