TOM PLATE WRITES — Australia has a China problem, and it’s not clear that anyone can help it out of the box it’s in. Yes, it’s a China box: The ground underneath the Asia-Pacific is starting to shake, and the incipient foreign-policy shakeout ‘Down Under’ may well tell those of us ‘Up Top’ how the rest of region will recast itself politically in coming decades. But is Beijing the demon driver of the problem?
China does have issues with Australia that can perhaps be illustrated this way. At a conference on US-Australian relations some time ago in Los Angeles, someone asked an Australian official how his otherwise intelligent country, with its advanced economy and educated citizenry, could have lined up like a sheep behind the unthinking US government of George W. Bush and hurled troops into the horrible Iraq war (and next, Iran?). The rejoinder was that this is what allies and friends are all about — there when you need them, without a whole lot of grumpy questions being asked.
Perhaps, but good friends are also for warning their good mates how to avoid coruscating stupidity. Yet Australia, it might seem, has hardly ever met an American war it didn’t like. And this, from Beijing’s perspective, is the problem: Canberra may be geographically farther from the United States than Outer Mongolia, but Beijing grades it as a more intimate and willing Washington clone than closer, bordering Canada. Beijing assumes Washington and Canberra seek to frustrate Beijing’s ambition to rule the Pacific waves; for its part, the U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu is indeed under no doubt that China aims to prove that, once thought of as an Aussie-American lake, Western Pacific waters will soon seek to bubble up with Chinese characteristics.
The amount of foreign aid from Beijing to small, vulnerable nations of the West Pacific edges up every year and is now in the same league as Australia’s own substantial aid program. Its naval buildup proceeds steady-as-you-go; the game is indeed on.
Neighbors, from Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, to Narau, the smallest island country, tend to admire modern Australia for its achievements and its helpful development aid over the years – but they get turned off by its smug sense of superiority. Once a colony of England, it strikes neighbors as having evolved its own look-down-on-others mentality.
But perhaps this is a waning impression, as more than a million ethnic Chinese reside in Australia, many who happily praise its advanced metropolises, especially Sydney and Melbourne – rare with unpleasant events or psychologies of personal fear. But with or without evidence, it is often assumed that whites are anything but color blind. Perhaps Asia’s vast experience of colonization from Europe unduly lingers, but such optics, fair or not, are of considerable diplomatic utility to Beijing. Whatever works – economically (increasing gobs of aid/investment) or psychologically (talking up the odious white man’s burden theme) – will go into the Beijing playbook for its Pacific charm offensive.
Australia’s regional foreign-policy dilemma is thus dangerously complicated. Its past has been more or less defined simply by its alliance with the U.S. Its future will undoubtedly be increasingly shaped by its relationship with neighboring states that either do not tremble at the mere mention of the People’s Republic of China and even in some sense admire the rise of a Chinese/Asian superpower. Australia, writes Sarah Teo of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, “must be careful not to overplay its hand [as a US ally] and become perceived as working to curtail China’s rise or of being dismissive of the smaller states in the region … [if it wants] to achieve closer relations with its Asian neighbors.” (Teo’s essay – Can Australia Be One of Us? – appeared in a recent Australian Foreign Affairs, a most welcome new journal.)
So the pitch that China should be a national-security worry for everyone in the region seems unconvincing, hollow and even a bit callous. Pacific island nations are not eager to be played as pawns by Canberra or Beijing but at the same time are anything but adverse to shaking both of their piggy-banks up and down for whatever they can get. Who can blame them?
And so, right in the vortex of the roiling center of the grand Asia Pacific reshuffle does good-old Australia now find itself. Even troubles as far away as Hong Kong (seemingly caught up in continuing crisis) blow across the seas to this vast underpopulated country-continent: last week pro-Beijing Chinese demonstrators took to the streets of Brisbane to counter and fluster the anti-Beijing demonstration.
The Asian Chinese diaspora, it seems, is neither simple-minded nor single-minded. Australian cultural-studies Professor Ien Ang, author of the book ‘On Not Speaking Chinese’, frames the identity question this way: “If I am inescapably Chinese by descent, I am only sometimes Chinese by consent. When and how is a matter of politics. ” Not all pro-Beijing sentiment comes from the PRC propaganda mill – some comes from the heart and spirit of Chinese, wherever they are – sometimes even from those not enamored with the ways of Mr Xi Jinping’s central government.
The Trump administration’s default into a kind of binary bust-up with China is as misconceived as was the US Iraq invasion. A monochromatic view of what it means to be Chinese or what it means to be an ally or what it takes to work with other peoples will always take you down the wrong road of history. Alas, whichever way you look at it, no matter how far Down Under they are, the Aussies are under immense heat these days from a creeping global warming of the ugliest geopolitical sort.
Tom Plate, a clinical professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who has been writing about Asia since 1996, is the author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ book series. An earlier version of thIS column appeared in Prof Plate’s ‘home’ newspaper, the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong.