Julia Gillard’s first trip to North Asia as Prime Minister has gone surprisingly well.
The trip would have been made all the more challenging by the government’s difficulties at home. Labor is struggling in the polls and faces an uphill political battle ahead of what will probably be an unpopular Budget. Domestic events are also running against the Government. The optics of this week’s protests in multiple immigration detention centres have been terrible. Nor has Tony Abbott been idle while the Prime Minister has been overseas.
Given Kevin Rudd’s well-known love for foreign diplomacy, his replacement’s visit to Japan, South Korea and China was always going to be a closely-watched affair. Together they represent three of Australia’s most important bilateral relationships. China is surely our most important.
Of course, there are those, such as my colleague Dan Edwards, who point to the hypocrisy of Gillard’s mealy-mouthed pronouncements on human rights. But, if we look to other aspects of her visit, Julia Gillard may just have pulled off a substantial achievement.
In various interviews Gillard has told Australian journalists of her plans to build stronger military ties to China. "[We] indicated a preparedness to keep discussing defence co-operation," Gillard told Fairfax’s veteran Beijing correspondent John Garnaut. "We have indicated we are open to ships visiting Australian ports [and]there’s some prospect that there will be some visiting before the end of the year."
"It’s a few small steps on a journey to better understanding each other’s military perspectives."
Gillard’s remarks about defence cooperation may seem minor, but in the context of Australia’s future defence and national security policy, they loom very large indeed.
This is because, until this visit, it appeared as though Australia was headed towards a policy of containment with the emerging superpower.
2009’s Defence White Paper quite explicitly cited China as a growing military presence in our region, and recommended a substantial naval build-up to try and counter it. Despite considerable debate within Australia’s defence and intelligence communities about the future reality of the "China threat", the government went ahead with plans to develop and build 12 new submarines, at a prodigious projected cost. The White Paper was noted by the Chinese military establishment, who drew their own conclusions about it.
The submarine plan has its own problems, not least the great uncertainty hanging over the Defence Department and the Navy’s ability to design, construct an operate such an ambitious new fleet. But the broader question has always been: why are we seeking to contain or deter China in the first place?
For the military strategists like the ANU’s Hugh White, the issue is the coming dominance of China and the risk of a potential arms race between the People’s Republic and the United States. In his recent Quarterly Essay and in many subsequent media appearances, White has argued that the emergence of China as a global superpower is Australia’s most significant strategic challenge. Because of that, he thinks we need to embark on exactly the sort of arms build-up envisaged by the White Paper. "We need to start now ensuring that Australia has the kinds of capabilities that can provide us with sufficient strategic weight to look after ourselves," he told Ali Moore on Lateline in February. "To do what we’d need to do if Asia becomes more contested."
As Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd reportedly agreed. According to leaked cables obtained by Wikileaks, Rudd described himself as a "brutal realist" on China in a 2009 meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He apparently warned Clinton that the US should be prepared to use force against China "if everything goes wrong" and confided that the planned build-up of Australia’s navy was ‘"a response to China’s growing ability to project force."
The problem with this theory is what it entails. As Clinton is said to have responded, "how do you deal toughly with your banker?" China is not just the largest holder of US Treasury bills. The Asian giant is also Australia’s largest trading partner and the strength of its economy in large part determines the health of Australia’s export industries such as iron ore and coal. Quite why Australia would want to enter into a contest in East Asia under these circumstances has never adequately been outlined, even by White in his academic papers.
Not to put too fine a point on it, a cold war between China and America — let alone a hot war in the Taiwan Straits — is Australia’s worst strategic nightmare. The role of a sane Australian strategy should be to do everything possible to engage China and America with each other, rather than tooling up for a containment strategy that we can’t afford and wouldn’t win.
This is why Gillard’s sign-posting of greater defence ties with Beijing is so important. It signals the retreat from a potentially disastrous commitment to a foreign policy Australia can ill afford.
We shouldn’t read too much into the defence announcements. The reporting of Gillard’s vist on Chinese news agency Xinhua hasn’t mentioned it all — covering the cultural and economic aspects of the relationship instead. But in Canberra’s defence establishment at Russell Hill and in the classified cables of foreign offices across Asia, the Prime Minister’s remarks are likely to ring loudly.
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