PACIFIC PERSPECTIVE: On China, Australians Make a Lot of Sense – and Dollars

TOM PLATE WRITES – Among the easiest things on the face of the earth on which one can become quickly aware of is an Australian after-party. That’s because it tends to carry on for so long that with each additional (happy) hour, it gets very audibly happier. But, as a (relatively) quiet America, all I can say is: cheers!

They can be a very happy people – these, our friends, the Australians.  And so the after-party that capped an all-day conference (“US-Australian Dialogue on Defense Industries”) in San Diego earlier this month was especially audible indeed.

This was not just because current tensions in the Asia Pacific have Australian defense companies poised to make financial killings. Arms and technology companies are among the comparatively few entities that spread their wings in peace as well as war. They are geared up to go either way, and while they invariably give proper lip service to mankind’s universal desire for peace and tranquility, they tend to do especially nicely when things go badly, to be sure.

That’s not news. Hard-nosed CEOs, from Ian Irving of Northrop Grumman Australia to Raydon Gates of Lockheed Martin Australia, maneuver atop tough competitive multi-billion dollar businesses. They are not exactly running the World Wildlife Federation or, say, Friends of Endangered Canaries. But to their credit, the Aussies seem determined to deepen their bilateral military and strategic alliance with the U.S. to take in more industrial and peaceful commercial cooperation. (By the way, the idea that they would defect to Beijing and take up Marx simply in return for a few more iron and ore contracts is ludicrous.) They don’t want to be boxed in as a mere U.S. Deputy Sheriff quartermaster of tanker aircraft, stealthy F35s and so on. Our government should work to accommodate them on this point.

At the same time Australia’s outlook is more broadly contextual for its superior understanding of China. Our longtime ally (which actually lives in the Asia Pacific region it shares with so many other nationalities, ethnicities and religious ideologies) has thought hard about how to relate to the rising Chinese phenomenon. And they have come up with a solid and sensible “strategic plan,” as many of the CEOs at the daylong trans-Pacific networking event might put it.

To simplify: Aussies assess China as less of a blatant threat than some other nations do, as Robert Hill, a former defense minister put it. This is perhaps because the Aussies have been thinking about its rise over such a period of time. They are not so much in some dazed state of “China Shock” – as in: how did Beijing get so big and so powerful “overnight”?  Wow-wee, golly-gee!!!

For the superior Aussie perspective, let us give credit, in part, to the persistent hard work of the better Australian correspondents who have continually taken China seriously. Over the last decade and a half or so their reporting has been more complete and more nuanced than the general junk we have been fed in the U.S.  As a result, Australia seems neither overly traumatized by China’s rise (as now in the U.S.) nor in abject denial (as perhaps in parts of Europe).

A good example of levelheaded thinking arose during the conference, organized by the Australian government’s Los Angeles consulate, when the prominent political figure Kim Beazley was thrown a tough question. Was China’s so-called “peaceful rising” policy never really sincere- or just recently abandoned? The former Labor Party leader and current ambassador to Washington incisively disputed the question’s premise, suggesting “China” was not any one thing but a difficult combination of sometimes competing and disagreeing parts, many entirely peaceful, though some less so: “It is an immensely complicated country,” he smiled, in a deliberate understatement.

Beazley pointed to the huge rise of an urbanized middle class and to the various border and maritime boundary issues with neighbors in which China is trying to make its own good case. He conceded that the current “arms race in the region” is fueling misunderstandings and tensions, at a time when all nations should seek to enlist China as a “global partner in prosperity.”  At the same time he advised the current Chinese government to consider the possibility that “irrespective of what they think they are doing, what they really are doing” is putting a region-wide “question mark over the mantra of ‘peaceful rising’.”  Perhaps Beijing already senses the need for reconsideration: Just the other day it was hauling back to Beijing nothing less than a $1-billion oil rig it had planted in what Vietnam angrily claimed were its territorial waters.

At the conference’s conclusion (if before the dangerous after-party!), one wanted to raise a glass to toast sensible Beazley and his sensible Australia.  An unhealthy daily diet of anti-China media and political-establishment misunderstandings – if not deliberate propaganda – will inevitably poison Asia and America.  With all the misery in the Middle East and the Ukraine, cannot wise and skilled world diplomacy navigate at least one region away from war?

My final note:  the Australian media accorded the removal of the oil rig by China as a big news story. Guess which national media did not? Cheers!

Professor Tom Plate of Loyola Marymount University is the author of the forthcoming In the Middle of China’s Future (Marshall Cavendish Asia International).

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