2021-09-27 12:55:51 Australia’s Costs for Its Harder Line on China

Australia’s Costs for Its Harder Line on China

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIAN REPUBLIC — When Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, declared a new “forever partnership” with the United States to strengthen military ties, it was a watershed moment in his country’s trailblazing push against a more assertive China.

The decision to acquire American nuclear-powered submarines earlier this month demonstrated that, even as Beijing has hammered Australia with sanctions and a halt to high-level talks, Australian officials are determined to maintain a sharp turn in policy and tone toward China, despite relations deteriorating to their coldest point in decades.

“This was Australia acting in our national interests to ensure our national security in our region,” Mr. Morrison told reporters last week during a visit to the United States. “It is our responsibility to keep Australians safe.”

Behind the determined face on the international stage, however, there are murmurs of concern at home. Four years into its conflict with China, Australia is grappling with the economic and political ramifications, including a decline in democratic tolerance, and wondering what comes next.

New broad-brush laws aimed at countering Chinese government influence have cast a pall over Australia’s growing ethnic Chinese population, making many people fearful of discussing the subject, even with relatives. Initially benign foreign interactions — not just with China — have been stymied by red tape and ill-advised data collection aimed at combating shady interference.

Farmers and winery owners wonder when they will be able to sell to Chinese customers again, if ever. Chinese companies’ proposed investments in industries such as dairy farms have been blocked by the Australian government, often with little explanation. A promising scientific collaboration on climate change has also been abruptly canceled.

Allies have praised Australia for demonstrating how the world’s smaller powers can redefine relations with China, and American officials praised Mr. Morrison last week during his visit to Washington for a meeting with the leaders of the United States, Japan, and India — the so-called Quad. However, in response to increasingly vocal critics, Australia warns about the dangers of losing strategic focus in the midst of resisting China.

“‘Let us learn from Australia,’” said Andrew Chubb, an Australian researcher at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom who has written a study of Australia’s response to Chinese government activities.

“However, there are a number of cautionary lessons that other countries should learn from the Australian experience,” he added, “particularly the unnecessary alarmism that led to overreaching national security legislation.”

China has become more prickly and punitive under Xi Jinping, unwilling to back down when challenged, and most critics of Australia’s tougher policies blame Beijing for the deterioration in relations.

The Chinese government’s combative rhetoric, which included a list of 14 grievances handed to journalists late last year, has exacerbated a sharp decline in Australian public opinion of Beijing.

“If their intention was to change our public policy settings, they’ve just guaranteed that they won’t,” said James Paterson, an Australian senator from the ruling center-right Liberal Party, in an interview.

“What we need to do is show our resilience,” he said. “Not only will that be good for Australia, but it will also be good for every other country that is keeping a close eye on this.”

So far, Australia has largely weathered the economic storm, as China has yet to find a viable alternative for Australian iron ore, which was worth $53 billion in the first half of this year, and as Australia has found new markets for some goods.

However, some former Australian officials argue that the lost market share in China will hurt more in the long run, and that the government’s attachment to its reputation as a plucky pacesetter against Beijing’s bullying has stifled healthy debate about how a middle power like Australia should manage relations.

A reluctance to publicly detail how Australia will cope with potentially years of rejection by China — its largest trading partner — has heightened the uncertainty, as have ominous comments from defense minister Peter Dutton about rising risks of war. Australia’s new AUKUS partnership with the United States and the United Kingdom appears to be reinforcing a focus on domestic security as well.

“The knock-on effect of all of these announcements will be to further entrench suspicion of China and the so-called ‘enemy in our midst,” said James Curran, a former government official and history professor at the University of Sydney who is writing a study of Australia-China relations. “The government is now putting the country on a very clear and unequivocal security footing for the twenty-first century. It is a watershed moment in the history of Xi Jinping.”

Australia and China were in a warm embrace less than a decade ago. Mr. Xi appeared to be personally invested in the relationship, lavishing attention on marsupials and signing a free-trade agreement.

By 2017, however, Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had arrived at a much bleaker assessment of China’s course, declaring that his country would “stand up” to Chinese meddling.

Mr. Turnbull stated in an interview last year that Australia had come to regard Mr. Xi’s government as imperial and that it needed to resist Beijing’s “bullying.” Australia, like other Western powers and Asian allies, was increasingly concerned about China’s regional demands and power, particularly in the South China Sea.

Domestic concern in Australia has grown as a result of the Chinese government’s efforts to influence businesses, universities, and politicians. The controversy erupted in 2017 when it was revealed that an Australian Labor Party senator, Sam Dastyari, had issued a statement in support of China’s maritime claims after accepting money from a Chinese businessman.

Not as loudly expressed was growing concern that the United States’ weight in the region was dwindling in comparison to China’s, according to Richard Maude, a former diplomat who helped write an Australian foreign policy document outlining the shift in strategy in 2017.

In an interview, Mr. Maude stated, “Relatively, American pre-eminence has vanished.”

According to Mr. Maude, Australian government officials were aware that China was likely to retaliate harshly against the country’s hardening policies. The damage Australia would inflict on itself was less foreseen.

Concerns about Beijing’s political influence fueled suspicions that politicians, business executives, academics, and, most importantly, members of Australia’s large ethnic Chinese population had been co-opted.

When three Chinese Australians testified before an Australian Senate committee last October, Liberal Party Senator Eric Abetz asked them if they were willing to “unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship.”

Mr. Abetz reacted angrily when one of the witnesses asked why Chinese Australians were singled out for condemnation. “But can’t you pick a side to condemn the oppressive ugliness of China’s communist regime?” he asked.

Jieh-Yung Lo, director of the Australian National University’s Center for Asian-Australian Leadership, stated in an interview that Australians of Chinese descent, including those whose families have lived in Australia for generations, felt “wedged into a corner.”

“Unless and until we go out and condemn China, our place in Australia will be in jeopardy,” he said.

The new legislation against foreign interference has sparked concern among Australians of Chinese descent. Anyone engaged in activities on behalf of any foreign government, not just China, is required to register and self-report under the laws. Mr. Turnbull stated that the legislation was intended to protect Chinese Australians and other communities from intimidation.

Proponents of the laws argue that they have weakened the Chinese government’s efforts to dominate local Chinese Australian groups. Nonetheless, the influence law, along with the expansion of espionage crimes, has yet to result in a conviction or a significant increase in transparency surrounding lobbying on behalf of China.

According to Yun Jiang, a former policy adviser in the Australian government who now produces the China Neican newsletter, such efforts have cast an intimidating shadow over Chinese Australians, discouraging them from participating in public life.

“There is a lack of representation of Chinese Australians — and Asian Australians in general — in Parliament, policy, and the media,” Ms. Jiang stated. “Among Chinese Australians, there is a real diversity of views, but their perspectives are frequently missing in public debate.”

At least two former prime ministers, one of whom is Mr. Turnbull, have joined the chorus of those opposing the influence law. He is now retired from politics, but he was required to register under the law due to speeches he gave to audiences in South Korea and Taiwan. When he introduced the legislation, he stated that such a requirement was “not intended or contemplated.”

Several academics have argued that Australia’s new laws stigmatize any association with a Chinese institution, from the military to musical troupes.

“Many people appear to believe that in order to compete with China, we must change ourselves,” Ms. Jiang said, “but that change may imply becoming more like China.”

After the government focused its attention on possible illicit influence and espionage in universities and research institutes, science has become another area of hazily defined sensitivity. Recently, the concerns have seeped into a topic that the US has identified as a shared interest with China and Australia: climate change.

In June, Australia’s top scientific body announced the termination of a collaboration with China’s Qingdao National Marine Laboratory Center. The decision was made in response to comments made in Parliament by a senior intelligence official who stated that foreign nations could use ocean research to gain an advantage in naval warfare. The scientists involved were perplexed by the claim because their research focused on global ocean trends that would be useless for navigation.

Many observers believe that the scope of discussion tolerated within the government has shrunk, posing the risk of groupthink.

Critics argue that Australia’s intense focus on security has increased the risk of policy mistakes by undermining Australia’s understanding of China.

“I think there has been a lack of attention to the complexity of dealing with China,” said Linda Jakobson, founder of China Matters, an organization that has hosted policy discussions and studies on policy toward Beijing and has seen its Australian government funding significantly reduced in the last year.

“There is a great reluctance to bring up the good, bad, and ugly — to have a different point of view,” she said.

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Australia's Costs for Its Harder Line on China