So farewell, “Asia-Pacific”. You had a good run as a key trope of Australian foreign policy — a quarter of a century, with deep commitment from Paul Keating, rather less enthusiasm from John Howard, then a final flourish under Julia Gillard. It’s time to make way for a new foreign policy trope, “Indo-Pacific”, which will make its debut in today’s foreign policy White Paper. At the current rate of continental drift, we’ll have circled the globe by 2150.
The shift in terminology is likely one of several factors that will cause the China lobby in Australia to erupt in anger over what will be portrayed as an insult to Beijing in the White Paper. And, as the media has increasingly documented, there is a China lobby very active in Australian public affairs. Once confined to DFAT, it has now expanded deep into the community and political system, courtesy of the diligent efforts of local Chinese diplomats, Chinese donations to and courtship of politicians on both sides, and our self-destructive reliance on foreign students to provide the kind of funding for our higher education system that government should be providing. There is also a strong China lobby in business ranks, from the idiot fringe — in 2012 Clive Palmer theatrically boycotted a reception for Barack Obama to demonstrate his pro-China affection — to Australia’s most powerful figures like Kerry Stokes.
The apologists, appeasers and lobbyists who speak on behalf of Chinese interests are nothing to be sanguine about. The Chinese government’s interests and values are deeply inimical to our own. It is the most brutal regime on the planet, with a track record of mass murder, industrial-scale suppression of human rights, rejection of the rule of law, systematic corruption and mass surveillance that makes 1984 look innocuous. More to the point, its desire for hegemony is deeply destabilising for the region most important to Australia’s economic interests.
Policy toward China is one area where the Turnbull government has performed well. Yes, there was the stupidity of trying to force through an extradition treaty, which had to be abandoned in the face of Labor opposition and internal dissent. But the government has struck the right tone on China’s militarism in the South China Sea, while declining to regularly mimic the overt aggression of US freedom of navigation operations. It has pushed back against Chinese efforts to corrupt Australian universities and undermine academic freedom by imposing censorship on discussion of Chinese abuses, and introduced draft legislation to curb foreign interference.
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Most significantly, the government has rightly sought to revive the quadrilateral security dialogue with Japan, India and the US, so foolishly (and unilaterally) abandoned by Kevin Rudd. The White Paper is said to focus on other key democracies in the region, South Korea and Indonesia as well, as potential counterbalances to Chinese aggression. Whatever other — entirely justified — criticisms might be made about Julie Bishop, the fact that she has been regularly “lashed” by Beijing is a sure sign she’s doing her job of representing our national interests.
The background radiation permeating our foreign policy, though, is the man-child in the White House. The problem Trump poses is not merely is he utterly unpredictable, completely inconsistent and easily manipulated by more political experienced dictators like Putin and Xi — which is of course bad enough — but that he may be less an aberration than a symptom of a failing political system that has become unmoored from reason, evidence and even basic self-interest. A political system in which a child molester remains a major party Senate candidate out of sheer partisan bloodymindedness, a system in which people have to look to senior military and national security figures for reassurance that catastrophic recklessness won’t be unleashed on the planet.
Australia’s relationship and alliance with the United States will survive Trump, but will it survive what the US is becoming? The alliance has saved Australia countless billions in additional defence expenditure, albeit at a terrible cost of lives lost in pointless US wars we joined in as the price for US protection. The time may come when we’ll have to face the enormous costs that will come from not being able to rely on the US any more.