Why Bob Carr is right about China

If Australia is to join the AIIB, the decision should be based on cautious and careful calculation of what is in our national interest, rather than a knee-jerk response.

Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister was most widely reported for its fetishisation of the ideal of a ‘concave abdomen defined by deep-cut obliques.’

But the book’s Patrick Bateman-esque musings belie Carr’s acute understanding of international relations in Asia, and Chinese foreign policy in particular.

Carr’s conclusions warrant revisiting when assessing how Canberra should respond to Beijing’s proposal for a China-dominated US$50 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

The consistent view in nearly 500 pages of diarising is that Australia can afford to be much more frank and forthright with China.

According to Carr, Canberra should approach Beijing with an air of what he calls ‘absolutely unruffled’ confidence. Australian political leaders and policymakers should engage with China with due respect, but they should not be browbeaten into pliant policy positions for fear of offending Beijing.

In Carr’s blunt assessment: ‘Don’t fuss too much over the Chinese and feed their games; recognise that they may enjoy putting us on the defensive.’

This might seem like foreign policy common sense, but alarmist commentary about the government’s refusal to immediately sign up to the AIIB underlines the need for more Carr-style confidence on China.

Warm bilateral ties with China are obviously in the national interest, but there is little evidence to suggest that making Beijing wait for a response to the AIIB proposal will cool the Sino-Australian relationship.

Beijing is fully aware of China’s and Australia’s divergent interests on a wide range of security and diplomatic issues, including the US military presence in Asia and the implementation of human rights norms.

China’s political leaders and policymakers would therefore be neither surprised nor disappointed by Australia’s initially reticent reaction to a Chinese proposal as strategically significant as the AIIB initiative.

Testament to this, Beijing has stressed that Australia and other undecided nations will have until the end of 2015 to join the AIIB as founding members.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has even assured Foreign Minister Julie Bishop that there is ‘no pressure’ for Canberra to sign up to the AIIB’s memorandum of understanding right away, and that China is keen to address Australia’s concerns about the bank’s governance.

Moreover, although the government has rightly expressed in-principle support for the AIIB on the grounds that it will encourage China’s deeper enmeshment in the global economy, Australia should also unashamedly acknowledge that it is particularly cautious about this initiative precisely because it has been proposed by Beijing.

Unlike the United States, Japan and Australia’s other close allies and friends in the Asia-Pacific, China rejects key aspects of the liberal international order.

This year alone, Beijing has tacitly supported Moscow’s violent meddling in Ukraine and the Assad regime’s brutality in Syria, while also employing gunboat diplomacy and brinkmanship in its territorial disputes in the East and South China seas and on the Indian subcontinent.

It is hardly surprising that China’s strategic interests are vastly different from Australia’s. As Dennis Richardson, former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and now Secretary of the Department of Defence, has emphasised: Australia’s ‘interests are different from a great power’s.’

This is true of liberal democratic great powers like the United States and Japan, but it is especially true of the authoritarian and territorially revisionist regime in Beijing.

Of course, it would be unfair to assume that Beijing will use the AIIB to pursue strategic goals at odds with Australian interests.

Nevertheless, Bishop was right to remind cabinet that there is a real risk of Beijing leveraging the AIIB to, for example, undermine the US ‘pivot’ to Asia or bully China’s neighbours out of their territorial claims.

This is not to argue that Australia should rebuff China’s AIIB advances. But if a decision is eventually taken to join the AIIB, it should be made on the basis of a cautious and careful calculation of what is in Australia’s national interest --strategic imperatives included -- rather than a knee-jerk impulse to follow whichever policy path will further integrate China into the global economy.

China is a ‘civilizational state’ with thousands of years more recorded history than Australia, while its demographic, economic and military weight already dwarfs Australia’s.

Notwithstanding such intimidating scale and stature, Canberra must remain ready to emphasise to Beijing with ‘absolutely unruffled’ confidence that pursuit of Australia’s national interest will not always be synonymous with pursuit of a deeper embrace with China.

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.