Iron ore in WA loaded on ships to China. Image from Flickr, courtesy of Jussarian.

Iron ore in WA loaded on ships to China. Image from Flickr, courtesy of Jussarian.

Australia’s balancing act with Beijing

2 March 2016

New Defence White Paper’s China strategy will be complicated and demanding. But it also needs candour and collaboration, writes Bates Gill.

In terms more pointed than its predecessors, the 2016 Australian Defence White Paper declares that the United States, China, and their bilateral relationship will be the most important factors shaping Australia’s strategic future for the next two decades.

This judgement reminds us again of the ongoing and enormously difficult task facing Canberra: striking the right balance between its most important strategic and economic partner, the United States, and its largest trade partner and burgeoning regional power, China.

The most difficult challenge lies in getting the Chinese side of the equation right.  Australia’s strategic relationship with the United States is long-standing, familiar, driven by extensive and enduring networks of trust and cooperation, and built on shared interests and values.

In contrast, these attributes hardly characterise the Australia-China relationship.  That is understandable—it was only three years ago that the two sides pronounced a “strategic partnership” between them and began to put in the place frameworks to support and build that kind of partnership.  It will take decades to truly achieve such a relationship with China if it is possible to achieve at all.

Moreover, Beijing’s ongoing military modernisation presents a potential challenge to Australian interests.  This is particularly true given China’s steadily advancing abilities to project power much closer to Australian shores through its growing submarine fleet, ballistic missile forces, and cyber- and space-based capabilities. The White Paper starkly illustrates that Chinese military spending—currently between a quarter to a third of the United States’—will grow to match American military spending in the next 20 years.

Given China’s growing power and the low base from which to build Australia’s strategic relationship with Beijing, what is the right approach?

It will certainly not be easy.  The White Paper offers some defence- and security-related ideas and these should be refined and expanded going forward.  For example, the White Paper makes clear the Government’s intention to increase the range of military-to-military and other security-related interactions with China.  

Such engagement aims to improve transparency, build trust, develop concrete cooperative security outcomes, and strengthen China’s stake in regional stability and cooperation. Increased security ties between countries that include China in regional military diplomacy—such as the Australia-US-China Kowari exercises in the Northern Territory—should continue and be expanded as much as practically possible. 

But while these steps are important and necessary parts of a long-term defence and security strategy toward China, such engagement alone will not suffice. 

A critical component of any China strategy must also include increased military and security engagement with other countries that have a stake in a rules-based regional order—the United States, New Zealand, Japan, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam. In fact, these relationships should be vigourously pursued. And if such measures can constructively involve China, all the better.

But even more, can be done.

Clearly, consistently, and candidly stating how Chinese policies affect Australian interests—both positively and negatively—should become a more regular part of Canberra’s diplomatic conversations both bilaterally with Beijing and around the region.  As the White Paper indicates, Australian and Chinese strategic interests will differ on certain global and regional issues.  Canberra should be less shy in saying so.

Finally, we need to look inward.  Getting China right for Australia demands far greater investment in understanding and interpreting the country: its politics, economy, foreign and security policies, trajectory as a major power, and the implications for Australia.  For Defence, this means expanding resources for intelligence and research in both the classified and open-source realms.  

But more broadly, it also means building out Australia’s national competency on China, in both the private and public sectors.  Pockets of excellent China experience and expertise exist in Australia.  But given the complexities which lie ahead in navigating the current and future Australia-China relationship, they still fall short of what is needed.

While the White Paper does not say so, Canberra is clearly embarked on a strategy of “engage but hedge” with China.  In doing so, Australia’s strategy closely aligns with nearly every other country across the Indo-Pacific.  It is the right way forward but it is also the most complicated and demanding.

Dr Bates Gill is Professor of Asia-Pacific Strategic Studies in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australia National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, He is also a Board Director of China Matters Ltd.

This article was also published in The Australian.

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