Keep it simple, Sinophiles

China didn't appreciate being taken for a ride by Kevin Rudd, even unintentionally. Tony Abbott's low-key, more economically focused strategy will be a better fit – if he can sustain it.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has completed what many will consider a successful trip to south-east Asia. On the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali, his message to Chinese President Xi Jinping is that Australia is ‘open for business’ and welcoming of increased Chinese investment into a number of economic sectors.

Despite some pre-election predictions that he would be an embarrassment for Australia in the neighbourhood, he has started well with our most important trading partner, even if there will be more difficult issues and days ahead. But friendly words are one thing. The lingering question is whether Abbott will possess the skill and nuance needed to achieve a stable and constructive relationship with Beijing over the next few years.

An open admirer of John Howard, the prime minister is likely to adopt his mentor’s seemingly simple approach of deepening the economic relationship with China while tacking closer to the United States in political and strategic terms. While this will be dismissed by those wanting a more transformative as anachronistic and unsophisticated, the reality is that the rest of the region is moving towards this blueprint, increasing the chances that it will work.

A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. A relevant question is why, despite an apparent lack of expertise on China, was Julia Gillard more successful than Kevin Rudd at managing the bilateral relationship, culminating in the April announcement of annual dialogues with senior Chinese leaders.

Key to Gillard’s success was a decision to lower expectations of any political or strategic accommodation with China, which was not possible at the time. Whether this was through cunning or else neglect is beside the point. There is a natural confluence of economic interests between Australia and China, despite domestic wariness of Chinese capital. Gillard largely stood aside and allowed the economic relationship to evolve, except when perceived issues of national security were relevant, such as the decision to ban Huawei from the National Broadband Network. Going one step too far, Rudd’s fatal mistake in the early part of his leadership was to falsely raise Chinese expectations that Canberra’s move towards Beijing’s strategic sphere of influence had begun.

Former diplomats such as Rudd should realise that symbols matter greatly. Remember that one of Rudd’s first foreign policy decisions as leader was to ask his then Foreign Minister Stephen Smith to announce the unilateral withdrawal from the Quadrilateral Initiative (involving the US, Japan, India and Australia) while standing next to his Chinese counterpart Wang Jiechi. The fact that the Quad was probably already a dead duck is beside the point. He could have quietly allowed the Initiative to fall by the wayside. That Rudd visited China but not Japan on his first overseas trip in Asian reconfirmed that mistaken impression for Beijing of a shift in Australian strategic posture. China, like any great power, does not like being taken for a ride — even if it was not intentional.

Back to the Howard blueprint for Abbott, which Gillard largely adopted. Former prime ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Fraser have denounced the so-called American decision to pivot or rebalance back to the region.

Like Howard, Abbott will do no such thing. Eschewing any transformative strategic alignment as irresponsible, the conservative tradition in Australian foreign policy holds the view that the country’s leverage in the region is considerably advanced because of the alliance with America, not in spite of it. Hence, conservative leaders such as Robert Menzies and John Howard tend to emphasise the importance of the alliance. Progressive ones such as Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating (and Malcolm Fraser in his twilight years) tend to advocate a post-alliance posture.

Under Abbott, those wanting a more independent and creative middle-power foreign policy will be dismayed. But it just so happens that the rest of the region is pursuing the same allegedly obsolete blueprint. Governments in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are overtly or subtly tacking closer to America because of China’s rise, while continuing to seek economic agreements with Beijing. Even the Philippines want American warships back in Subic Bay after throwing them out in 1992, while former wartime enemy Vietnam is eager for the Seventh Fleet to visit its ports.

Encouraging China to rely on economic opportunities in regional markets, while doing everything possible to facilitate and enhance American and allied strategic and military cooperation in Asia, are seen as the two essential pillars required to encourage the rise of a peaceful China, and discourage any thoughts it might have about using force to get its way.

This brings us to a further element of a conservative approach to international relations in the modern Australian context which is commonly seen as a handicap in the region. In a July 2012 speech in Beijing, Abbott raised the issue of political reform in China, arguing that the country would be even better off if it allowed its people to freely choose their leaders.

For those who confuse diplomacy with strategy, this would be considered an unnecessary slight against Australia’s largest trading partner. Yet, reaffirming Australia’s commitments to democratic values serves to lower expectations in Beijing that Canberra can be politically turned. One should also not forget that the other major players in Asia are indeed democratic, albeit some more than others: America, Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Democratic principles are even enshrined in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Charter, and are now generally accepted as the final destination for legitimate governments in the region.

Besides, regional capitals are similarly hoping that institutions normally associated with democratic governance such as rule of law, independent courts and transparency take root in China, without which the risks of doing business in the country can become intolerable. And economic history overwhelmingly tells us that no country has ever escaped the middle-income trap without these institutions, which in turn generate the conditions required for successful political reform.

Having the correct instincts vis-à-vis China is a good start. Then there is execution in the years ahead, and that will be no easy task. Keeping the economic nationalists at bay within the Coalition will also prove difficult. But at least there is a plausible blueprint to follow and adapt, and no need for the Abbott government to reinvent the wheel.     

Dr John Lee is the Michael Hintze Fellow and adjunct associate professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is also a non-resident senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC and a director of the Kokoda Foundation in Canberra.

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