Australia has been hit by crises over the past 18 months that raise public policy concerns and questions. They include severe drought, bushfires that threatened the very fringes of major population centers, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has shut international and domestic borders and a trade spat with China, all of which have caused substantial economic damage. In addition there is growing Chinese infiltration into Australia’s political, business and social institutions, Chinese assertiveness on the South China Sea and a decline of US influence within the Indo-Pacific hemisphere.
In particular, the extent of Chinese influence on both sides of the Australian political fence as well as in universities, domestic media, the Chinese diaspora, local government and aggressive ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy on the part of China, are of major concern. The Australian polity has for far too long been entangled with Chinese instruments of influence, which rendered executive government largely unable to respond.
Only after numerous media exposes of Chinese influence within Australian society, with the latest being the ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ to source technology and lure expertise for the benefit of China, has this been taken as a real threat to Australia’s national interest. After months of media criticism, the Morrison-led Liberal government has finally announced that it is seeking legislative measures to block Labor Victorian premier Daniel Andrews’ Belt and Road Initiative agreement with China, signed almost two years ago.
From a strategic perspective, Australia’s traditional defense and security doctrine has failed to protect national interests. Defense policy is based upon the premise of defending the Australian mainland and supporting US presence within the Indo-Pacific theater as a minor entity. The ability of Australia’s armed forces to project into Asia has been on the wane for decades. Security policy has primarily focused on terrorism in the post 911 world, at the cost of protecting national interests against other threats.
The drought, bushfires, and the pandemic have all shown that the greatest immediate threats to the wellbeing of the nation are both non-state and non-military. Protecting Australia very much requires non-conventional strategies and resources. Future threats are more likely to require specialized non-military domestic logistical resources for deployments in times of emergency, and security resources to focus on espionage activities rather than terrorist attacks. This requires a reconfiguration of both Australia’s military and security services.
Politicians from both sides had always assumed that Australia’s defense and security was closely aligned with US objectives. There are four US bases in Australia, with US Marines based in Darwin on rotation to support this assumption. Potential threats have always been perceived as traditional external military nature.
Australia’s Foreign policy doctrine has focused upon bolstering existing traditional relationships, leaving most regional relationships very shallow and transactional to say the least. The mandarins of Canberra still hold onto a strong Austro-Eurocentric view of the world, within the Anglosphere of the Five Eyes, the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand. This has been seen to have failed to protect Australia’s interests from non-conventional threats.
The minerals boom created a false sense of security. Although the boom drastically increased Australian exports and attracted A$250 billion in investment, reaching 58 percent of total exports by 2018, this gave the illusion that the country was strong and secure economically. Although, the mineral boom saved Australia from recession, it hid the decline in agriculture, construction and manufacturing, creating a much narrower based economy dependent on imports to replace what used to be produced locally. This made the country very economically dependent upon China, representing 29 percent of Australia’s total international trade.
China’s diplomatic aggressiveness and the physical buildup within the Pacific and South China Sea, have long been of concern. Over the past few months, with Australia calling on an independent inquiry into the source of the Covid-19 pandemic, China has diplomatically decupled itself with Australia, and introduced a number of trade sanctions.
The gradual decline of US regional influence, which looks set to continue, and prolonged geo-political and geo-economic friction between China and the US, leaves stark questions about what type of region Australia will live within?
There is a vacuum of policy thought about what Australia can do and how effective anything Australia does would be. There are no strategic options with high probabilities of potential success. All options look difficult.
The current doctrine of the US as a strategic partner and China as a trading partner is becoming difficult to coexist. Keeping a close US alliance will not aid Australia’s prosperity. Australia in a post Covid world will be much poorer, with high unemployment, a liquidity squeeze, record bankruptcies and a government in extraordinarily high debt. In this position the government will find it extremely difficult to kickstart the economy and put resources into defense and security priorities. Australia may be totally unprepared for any new crisis. The government will have to drastically increase immigration to create economic growth through demand.
Externally, Australia has little choice to finally recognize the nation is actually domiciled within the Asian region. It must make a serious pivot to Asia, where it now has much more in common with its regional neighbors than ever before. It will be a much poorer nation, and like Covid-hit countries within the region will need to restart its economy.
Australia is not the only country that has had a falling out with China. Some countries in the region have deep seated issues with China over BRI and/or the South China Sea. Canberra has to learn how to engage countries within the region far beyond the transactional relationships of the past. To assist with this, Australia has a golden asset to rebuild neglected relationships, the Asian diaspora resident in Australia.
Although Australia is no match for China when it comes to aid diplomacy, past experiences by some countries whose BRI investments have resulted in a debt trap may present a welcome mat for a sincere Australia. There is a wide array of areas for mutual benefit. These include culture, education, trade, medicine, research, and military cooperation. Military cooperation is potentially Australia’s ultimate long-term defense against potential enemies. It is here Australia must think out of the box, such as inviting and facilitating the relocation of Singapore’s armed fighter squadrons from the US to Australia as Singapore’s rear and last-resort defense strategy.
China’s military and diplomatic expansion are not without weaknesses. China’s aggressive diplomacy should be seen as a welcome wake up call to Australia. This was a great strategic mistake, letting out rhetoric that reflected China’s national ego, rather than serving its national interest. ‘Wolf warrior’ rhetoric unnecessarily telegraphed China’s potential future punches, particularly when read with what is happening in Hong Kong.
China’s trade sanctions on Australia’s beef and barley exports and the threat to wine exports is a message to diversify. Neighboring markets are still relatively untapped for Australian business to enter and develop. China’s increasingly threatening position in the South China Sea opens up all sorts of possibilities for future military cooperation within the region closest to Australia’s shores.
Domestically, there is a need to cleanse the political landscape, educational institutions and local media of undue foreign influence. This is particularly important in those who hold public office, so there is a pressing need to screen those running for public office for any indications of loyalty towards other nations. Strategic assets such as utilities, ports, transport, and water resources need much greater scrutiny when sold to foreign parties.
Strategically, Australia has to determine whether foreign influence actually equals threat. What does an expanding China really mean? And how can Australia earn China’s respect? Probably by being strong-minded and independent. China is not necessarily the enemy. China is doing on a much more massive scale what Australia did in Timor Leste, and tried to do in Indonesia.
Australia has to correct problems with the way policy is made. Canberra is too isolated for faceless mandarins behind closed doors to be responsible for such important issues. Much more diversity in policy making is required. The US alliance doesn’t have to be completely broken, just a more independent view coming out of Canberra will be important for regional engagement.
Finally, the narrative needs multicultural diversity that is much more representative of the Australian nation today rather than what Australia once was. Former prime minister Keating’s pivot to Asia back in the 1990s failed because of the narrative. Australian was physically part of Asia but not in soul.
As the Chinese proverb says, in every crisis, there is opportunity. Certainly, for Australia there is, if there is a dream about what the region could be, and this becomes a shared vision of the region. There is so much common ground between Australia and the region, physically, socially, economically and militarily. This is what Australia needs to explore.
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel