Should a democracy like Australia remain neutral between authoritarian China and an historic ally like the United States – or even tilt towards Beijing?
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating recently joined foreign policy strategists such as Hugh White, author of The China Choice (left), in suggesting that Australia should adopt a non-aligned status in light of China’s growing economic and military power.
Such a stance entails “recognizing China’s legitimacy, its prerogatives as a great power and the legitimacy of its government,” said Keating, a former Labor Party premier.
“If we are pressed into the notion that only democratic governments are legitimate, our future is limited to action within some confederation of democracies,” he said.
Dismissing concerns about China’s authoritarian regime, he insisted that “the seemingly perpetual invocation of this human rights mantra attributes no moral value to the scale and quality of the Chinese achievement.”
Similarly, Foreign Minister Bob Carr believes Australia can remain neutral between the U.S. and China and need not be wary of Beijing’s growing military might.
As Labour parliamentarian Michael Danby observed, the paleo-conservative Spectator weekly recently published a front page article entitled “Master no more: it’s time to stop following America,” accompanied by an illustration depicting Australia as a poodle chasing an American heel.
“The world not only must accommodate the rise of China it also has to accommodate the relevant decline of the US. That may be the greater challenge because the US will not go quietly,” said the accompanying article, by a Leftist academic in a Right-wing magazine.
Australia is facing a foreign policy dilemma of potentially strategic significance, some observers suggest.
“Australia knows what it was like to live in a bipolar world when the two superpowers were the USSR and the US,” said Flinders University foreign policy expert Professor Dean Forbes. “But this time we (Australia) are bigger, stronger, and much more engaged with the other power (China). How we deal with that is a major issue for us as it is for the rest of the world.”
“It is a fair and timely question” to ask how Australia should react to China’s attempt to reclaim its status as Asia’s most powerful country ahead of the US, writes John Lee, the Michael Hintze fellow and adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies.
“But at least as important an inquiry is whether the Chinese Communist Party can itself adjust to China’s rise,” he argues. “And one crucial first step is to accept that its selective and self-serving version of Chinese history is itself a barrier against a more co-operative and stable future for the region.”
The CCP has spent millions of dollars producing and disseminating an official history of the rise of the Qing dynasty and its fall (from 1644 to 1912), before the founding of the modern-day People’s Republic of China from 1949 onwards under the party’s leadership. At its core is the notion that a once great China was brought to its knees and humiliated by outside powers, first by the British in the mid 1800s and then by the Japanese from the late 1800s onwards.
Many Chinese strategists argue that the US and its allies will do the same if China continues to rise. As the narrative goes, a strong and proud party is the only thing preventing outsiders from undermining and carving up the 5000-year-old civilization-state. The assault of the Qing dynasty by outside powers is historical fact, even if the country’s weakness from 1949 onwards was almost all self-inflicted during the Mao Zedong years.
“But the notion that there has been one enduring and permanent China struggling against avaricious outsiders across several millennia is a mischievous misrepresentation of history,” says Lee, a non-resident senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. And the party’s revisionist history is increasingly invoked to justify the Communist regime’s denial of minority rights.
“No major foreign country disputes China’s authority in Tibet and Xinjiang, only Beijing’s treatment of ethnic minorities and suppression of religious freedoms,” Lee notes. “The idea that foreign powers such as the US remain ready and poised to prevent the party from fulfilling its so-called historical mission of recapturing greater China is a convenient fiction used to strengthen the party’s domestic standing.” RTWT
There is much to admire – and fear – about a rising China, Lee recently observed, rebutting the claim by the pro-regime Foreign Affairs University’s Wu Jianmin that Western countries harbor prejudice against China’s political system and the ruling Communist Party.
“First things first: we should reject the false argument that only Western countries – inflicted with their prejudices – fear a powerful China,” he writes, noting the security concerns of Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and Australia:
We should also address another prevailing myth: that it is only prejudiced Western minds that fear the rise of an authoritarian China. In fact, China is rising in an environment within which every regional great power – Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia and Australia – is also a liberal democracy.
This raises the question of why people fear the rise of a powerful and authoritarian China, says Lee:
The first reason is one of transparency. All of Asia’s great liberal democracies have a comparatively free press. Debates on foreign policy are carried out in the open. ….In contrast, Chinese politics and policy is still largely conducted behind closed doors – with a largely compliant state-owned media serving as a mouthpiece for the government. …In other words, how Beijing thinks and what it will do is opaque and perhaps even inherently unknowable.
The second reason is one of political character. Although China is very different to the place that was ruled by Mao Zedong from 1949-1976, the CCP still largely stands above the law…..The upshot is that in such a set-up, rule-of-party will ultimately triumph rule-of-law in any conflict. These are hardly the conditions within which habits of compromise, tolerance and negotiation become learned behaviors.
“Governments in powerful democratic countries, like America, can also behave selfishly, ruthlessly and destructively,” notes Lee. “But when they do, they must answer to domestic and international critics, and can be periodically removed from office swiftly and without the spilling of blood.
“In other words, democratically elected governments tend to pay for their mistakes, or must at least explain or defend them. For a powerful and authoritarian China, the same rules may not apply.”