Morrison's China Choice

With his mandate now secured, Mr Morrison has both the opportunity and obligation to show his true colours on China.

Dr Euan Graham (Executive Director, La Trobe Asia, La Trobe University)
First published in The La Trobe Asia Brief Issue 2 on 1 July, 2019.

When China was – belatedly – raised during the recent Australian election campaign, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison repeated a well-worn mantra about not having to ‘pick sides’ between the United States and China. The former, he characterised as Australia’s ‘friend’, labelling China as a ‘customer’. While this description no doubt raised eyebrows in Beijing, Morrison was arguing that Canberra could ‘stand by’ both.

Morrison and the Coalition government was returned to power for three more years on 18 May, against the polls and pundits’ predictions of a Labor victory. The result ought to ensure basic continuity towards China, according to the policy template that Morrison inherited from Malcolm Turnbull less than a year ago.

But so far foreign policy has largely taken a back seat, such was Mr Morrison’s domestic re-election imperative. With his mandate now secured, Mr Morrison has both the opportunity and obligation to show his true colours on China, probably the most important challenge he faces.

The diplomatic line adopted by the Morrison administration has generally sought to position Australia somewhere in between its chief ally and chief customer. Mr Morrison has previously suggested that Australia might take on an intermediary role.

If that’s what the Prime Minister himself believes, few in Canberra’s foreign policy and defence circles think in such terms. To do so would only expose Australia to heightened risk, precipitating exactly the kind of invidious strategic choices that Mr Morrison wishes to avoid.

The Morrison administration has also framed US-China geopolitical competition as Australia’s primary external threat. Unfortunately, this invites Australians to think of the US alliance not only as a source of security, but as an equivalent source of danger – via ‘entrapment’ in a downwardly spiralling US-China strategic dynamic.

Drawing such equivalences may be borne of a desire to maintain Canberra’s flexibility as a middle power, but this is getting harder. More importantly, it plays into the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) efforts to sow discord between the US and its Pacific allies. China sees Australia partly as a dependable provider of raw materials and education services. But Canberra is also in Beijing’s strategic sights as a US ally, whose long-term loyalties are in play.

Morrison’s reticence on China is understandable from a political point of view. But the newly returned PM is only storing up trouble for Australia by failing to prepare the public for the deteriorating security environment that probably lies ahead.

Unless Australians are primed for the possibility of deeper tensions to come in the China relationship, it will be difficult for the federal government to take the people with it. Regarding the health of ‘the relationship’ with China as an end in itself is another pitfall to be avoided. The best guarantee against that is an Australian national interest framing that accepts the risk of frictions in service of those interests.

The focus of the commentariat on Australia being ‘caught in the middle’ of US-China tensions has obscured the basic fact that the strategic pendulum of China-Australia relations has moved inexorably closer to home within the life-span of the current government. When the Coalition came to power in 2013, the primary concern was about Australia being pulled into an East China Sea conflict between China and Japan.

Since then the focus of attention has moved steadily southwards, initially to the South China Sea. Australia’s security concerns there are still mostly indirect, hinging on two questions. First, what are the implications for the regional ‘rules-based order’ if China’s coercive salami- slicing tactics continue to cut though the status quo? Second, will Australia follow its allies lead by conducting US-style freedom of navigation operations. Neither has been convincingly answered.

Such important but far-off concerns for Australia have more recently been eclipsed by China’s ambiguous but unmistakable strategic interest in the Southwest Pacific. For it is here that China and Australia’s strategic interests clash directly, given Canberra’s quasi-hegemonic role.

Prime Minister Morrison’s most important security policy announcement so far, made at last year’s APEC summit, was the decision to establish a joint naval base with Papua New Guinea at Lombrum, on Manus Island. While the US has also announced some involvement with the joint base, this is the clearest indication yet of geopolitical competition playing out directly between Canberra and Beijing.

The Southwest Pacific will continue to be the main area to watch for the remainder of Mr Morrison’s time in office, as a bellwether of strategic tensions in the Australia-China relationship. The South China Sea will continue to matter, although Canberra’s strategic role in Southeast Asia will be a supporting one, best measured by the ability to maintain ‘access’ to the region, through its various, overlapping security partnerships.

A quasi-strategic dimension to Australia-China relations has also manifested domestically in recent times, via the issue of political interference. This underlines how the multi-spectrum nature of China’s challenge transcends the traditional confines of foreign and security policy. Morrison has at least been spared the hard work here, as new counter-interference legislation was enacted under Malcolm Turnbull.

However, the first prosecutions will be a key test of the Morrison administration’s commitment to the policy he inherited. Another test will be Morrison and his ministers’ ability to reach out to the Australian Chinese community in ways that don’t compound the existing pressures they are under, from Xi Jinping’s heavy-handed cultivation of influence among the Chinese diaspora.

The recently announced creation of a National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, under the direction of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs, is something else to watch. The new body, which replaces the Council for Australia-China Relations, is being federally funded to the tune of $44 million, with a broad remit to raise China literacy in Australia.

Investing some of this resource in Australia’s scholarly capacity to understand the CCP and its armed wing, the People’s Liberation Army, would be a welcome step. The financial dependence of Australian universities on China has transformed them from ivory towers into a frontline microcosm of the China-Australia relationship. This is a subject worthy of academic scrutiny in its own right.

Australia is in an uncomfortable spot between the US and China, because it’s more geographically and economically exposed to China, than say Canada, or the UK. But this dilemma can also blind Australians to the less freely acknowledged fact that they have grown accustomed to having the best of both worlds: riding high, economically, on the back of China’s booming commodities demand, while simultaneously enjoying a stable period of alliance relations with the United States, during which time the costs of security were relatively cheap and military commitments mostly at arm’s length.

Such a sweet spot was never going to last forever. As the status quo that has served Australia so well rapidly evaporates, politicians need to be honest with the electorate that we are headed for harder times, and that the halcyon days of having one’s cake and eating it too are drawing to a close.

Photo: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses the media, 26 March 2019 (Scott Morrison/Twitter).