Australia Faces the Painful Reality of a Changing Geopolitical Landscape

Relations between Australia and China have sunk to the lowest point since diplomatic recognition was accorded to the People’s Republic of China as one of the first acts of the new Australian government in November 1972. This action caused great consternation in the opposition Liberal party, who were completely unaware of similar moves by then United States government of Richard Nixon to recognise the PRC.

Relations between the PRC and Australia deteriorated sharply in 2018 when the foreign minister openly questioned China as the source of the pandemic then beginning to grip the world. In speaking out as she did, Marise Payne was undoubtedly acting as a mouthpiece for the American administration of Donald Trump. The motives for her speaking out did not interest the Chinese who reacted by beginning a progressive freezing of Australian imports.

The economic warfare was no small thing. China is Australia’s largest trading partner by a significant margin. In 2018 it took more than 40% of all Australia’s exports, nearly double that of Australia’s next largest trading partner, Japan. Replacing the Chinese market will not be easy, there’s no other country that has anywhere near China’s manufacturing capacity.

It was not just Australian imports that China targeted. The government made no secret of its desire that Chinese students should seek somewhere else for their tertiary education. This has had a huge impact on Australia’s university sector, as China has provided the largest number of foreign students by a substantial margin.

Relationships were also not enhanced by the Australian government imposing major restrictions on Chinese investment in the country. Its unilateral banning of Huawei was well publicised, but it was only one of a number of restrictions placed on investment proposals in Australia by Chinese companies. Again, this was no small measure. China in 2018 was the third largest source of foreign investment in Australia, and the loss of Chinese money is having a significant effect.

The reaction of the Australian government to these restrictions has been one of hurt surprise. The foreign and trade ministers have publicly complained that they have been unable to get their telephone calls to China answered or returned. That this should come as any sort of surprise is a measure of the government’s naivete.

It is not just in trade that the Australian government goes out of its way to offend China. Australia has long been little more than a lackie for United States foreign policy with an ever eagerness to join the United States’ wars of aggression wherever they occur in the world. The involvement in Afghanistan, only recently abandoned with little notice or consideration to its Afghan allies followed a nearly 20-year involvement in pursuing United States imperial ambitions.

Australia still has troops involved in Iraq, which is a country of even less geopolitical importance to Australia then Afghanistan. A demand by the Iraqi government 18 months ago that they should leave was simply ignored, once Australia had determined that the United States was similarly going to ignore Iraqi demands. The local media shows a remarkable lack of interest in reporting on Australia’s involvement in that blatantly illegal war.

Australia’s latest act of folly with the Chinese was to join yet another United States misadventure by signing up to the so called “quad” of four nations.  Along with the United States, Japan and India, that constitutes what is a blatantly anti-China political exercise. The folly was matched by the involvement of Australia’s Navy in an exercise practising the blockading of the Straits of Hormuz. This narrow waterway hosts 80% of China’s seaborne exports. It was correctly perceived by the Chinese as an unfriendly act. It signalled Australia’s willingness to become involved in a United States led war against China.

To describe all of these hostile actions by the Australian government against China as mindless is an understatement. It would be extremely difficult to find any other country in the world that follows a policy designed to ignore its most important trading partner’s sensitivities and wishes. Yet that is what the Australian government is doing.

One of the surprising features of the mindless and self-defeating policy is that there is almost no local reaction against it. The opposition Labor Party has maintained a deathly silence against the government’s perilous policies. To understand the likely reasons for this one has to look at Australia’s history.

The 1972–75 Labor government of Gough Whitlam greatly annoyed the United States by pulling his troops out of the Vietnam war, another foolhardy exercise on behalf of its American masters. It earned the enmity of Australia’s governor general John Kerr, a long-term American asset who also acted against his government’s interests in secret communications with Buckingham Palace. Those are only now being revealed after a lengthy legal fight.

The Whitlam government fought for its three years in power against this internal fifth column, being defeated after only one term in office. That loss had a salutary effect upon the Labor Party which has been careful not to annoy the United States ever since. It has just been revealed that a later Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke was in constant and secret communication with the Americans during his term in office.

That tradition continues with the present Labor Opposition almost completely silent on the misadventures in the South China Sea, and indeed on Australia’s progressive destruction of the once close and beneficial Chinese trade. Relationships with China are unlikely to improve as long as Australia maintains its adherence to the United States alliance.

The geopolitical world has changed in the past two decades and with it the once dominant role of the United States in influencing Asian affairs. Australia shows no sign of recognising that shift in the world geopolitical structure, much less changing its policies to accommodate the reality of these changes in literally its own backyard.

There will be further painful costs to be met before the pain eventually forces an overdue recognition of Australia’s real vital interests.

James O'Neill is a retired Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at Read other articles by James.