I’ve recalled for readers before a description offered by Paul Kelly about the John Howard view of Australia’s strategic bind vis-a-vis the US and China. Kelly used the old Yogi Berra phrase, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it”. That is, Howard was determined to not choose sides at all. He opened the nation’s arms to Chinese investment, diplomatic and economic engagement. Yet he also pursued historically close ties with the US military, which included the bizarre notion of the “democratic quadrilateral” containment of China via an explicit alliance between the US, Japan, India and Australia based, in part, upon shared values. Then again, Alexander Downer once went so far as to state that Australia may not support the US in any conflict between Taiwan and mainland China.
It may be that John Howard was a man of his times. There was no need to choose sides in the early millennium, as China’s rise was fresh, the US was distracted by the terror wars of George W. Bush and the theatre of hottest contest was the Middle East.
Then again, maybe John Howard wasn’t just a man of his times. Maybe he foresaw that in the long run, although the strategic contest between China and the US was inevitable, there was simply no reason to hasten it.
I could be critical of Howard. The failure to manage the mining boom arising from the embrace of China led to an economic over-dependence on that nation but the effect of most of his decisions was to create a kind operational neutrality for Australia in the Asia-Pacific region as he managed Australian interests with an eye to alliance maintenance and engagement with a growing new power.
However, the deliberate naivete of the choices during the Howard era are steadily giving way to a pincer for Australia’s external relations in which economic dependence upon China continues to mushroom even as our strategic ties to the US tighten.
In 2005 it was just a bit of iron ore and coal. Now it is those two on steroids but also parabolic growth in tourism and education, the great white hope for agriculture and huge inflows of legal and dodgy real estate capital to support absurd house prices. Australia’s entire economic structure is now a reflection of our northern Great Power neighbour.
Yet since 2005, the US has extricated from its Middle East quagmire and openly “swung to Asia” (by which it means China) in its strategic outlook. Relations are cordial enough for now but the South China Sea remains a perennial hot spot.
There is something peculiarly Australian about this bind. The defining text of Australian foreign policy is Dependent Ally by Coral Bell, a truly marvelous woman made up of the strangest combination of disarming crochet and mental acuity that I’ve ever met. In it she argued that:
Over the 200 years from 1788, Coral wrote, ‘dependent’ was the right adjective for Australia’s role as an ally, both psychologically and strategically, yet those relationships with Britain and the US were ‘complex affairs, full of ambivalence’. It was characteristic that she looked beyond the pejoratives implicit in dependence to describe the many advantages Australia won from ‘a persistent national addiction to a usually comfortable dependence, a conscious and even sometimes Machiavellian adoption by policy makers of the easiest and least costly way out of assumed strategic dilemmas’.
That conniving lassitude is very much at work in our current bind though this time around it is a dual and possibly mutually exclusive dependency that could end up being too lazy and clever by half.
It is echoed around the region to a lesser extent in other Middle Powers, most pointedly in Japan and Korea, and Coral’s answer was for Australia to join them in enmeshing China and the US in a “concert of powers” that demanded they share responsibility for regional security and prosperity. There is some measure of that going on the in the G20 even if ASEAN is proving very limp-wristed but it is minimal, really, and largely economic in nature.
There are limits to what little powers can do but it’s time we asked what exactly is it that we are doing? Howardism was clear in its embrace of economic liberalism with the controlled movement of people and the assumption that deeper economic engagement with China would deliver it to democracy over time. That frame of reference has continued to dominate Coalition thinking on Australia’s external relations since. But these days it’s no longer at all clear that it is strategically appropriate. Blocks on the movement of people are more political rhetoric than reality. Economic liberalism persists but is giving way to ad hoc blockages for Chinese investment even as literally the kitchen sink is sold to Chinese interests. Commitment to the US alliance is still reflexive in the security community but it’s not at all clear that it will resonate with a polity that owes the value of its home largely to Chinese capital flows. Above all, Xi Jinping is slowing liberalising the Chinese economy but he is also de-liberalising its politics, embedding the Communist Party and security apparatus ever deeper into its own polity. There is no democratic China in the offing.
Howardism is now little more than a bogus set of assumptions, trading on sentiment, and swiftly out-flanked by reality.
So, what has the Coalition brains trust given us to replace it if anything? Under Tony Abbott we didn’t really get long to figure it out. The hints were that Abbottism might develop into a global-roaming Australian musculature that sought to destroy evil abroad while plugging holes in Australian immigration at home. Cooped up in his office, staring at a bust of Winston Churchill all day, Abbottism in its infancy was an interventionist doctrine that sought to invade Iraq, Syria, the Crimea and African states for different purposes. It was a budding China hawk, favouring the traditional alliance in Japan. It was also determined to stop boats, launched a new “Border Force”, as well as restrictive house buying regime for foreign interests. It was a shockingly ham-fisted diplomat that pursued bilateral relations in trade over multi-lateral despite the former being largely useless.
It appeared to be developing into a kind of Fortress Australia outlook driven by an idealised global liberalism that spurned internationalism and a limited grasp of strategic realism, but it did have a clarity of principle that privileged Australia’s “five eyes” alliances.
So, what is Turnbullism today? Again, we haven’t had very long to judge but it appears to be less restrictive regarding the movement of people, it’s cordial with the US but doesn’t show any great inclination to boost the alliance. It appears more happy than Abbottism to sell Australian assets to Chinese interests but has spasmodic moments, like Transgrid, when that’s suddenly uncool. It’s embraced a local-first posture for defense procurement with no obvious strategic goal and carried forward the largely political strategy of pursuing bilateral trade agreements. It is clearly less inclined to fight foreign wars but has little interest in multi-lateralism. We really have no idea how it defines the national interest. From Brian Toohey today:
One excitable government source reportedly claimed that China mightn’t be a threat at present, but we don’t know if it will be in 50 years, so we have to ban it from owning Ausgrid now. We don’t even know if there will still be a power grid in 2066, let alone whether China will still exist in its current political configuration.
Morrison, for part his part, displayed a disturbing ignorance of what Ausgrid does. He told a press conference Ausgrid provides “critical” communication services to businesses and government. Ausgrid confirmed on Friday it doesn’t provide any communications services, critical or otherwise, to business and government. It has no telco customers. Its only communications capability is for internal purposes such as checking faults. Yet Morrison’s decision could cut the sale price for NSW by up to an estimated $3 billion.
When asked what’s the problem with Ausgrid, a smug looking Morrison replied: “The only person who’s security-cleared in this room to hear the answer to that question is me.” But he said the government had been unable to come up with suitable “mitigations”. A similar security problem was solved in Singtel’s takeover of Optus’ telecommunications assets in 2001 that included an Australian defence communications satellite. The solution stipulated that only Australian staff be allowed to control sensitive functions. Malcolm Turnbull has previously noted the law provides the ultimate mitigation – Australia can take over infrastructure if a serious security problem looks like arising.
It’s early days of course and new PMs tend to have their doctrines thrust upon them by events rather than impressing themselves upon the world. Even so, when the time comes, the PM’s foreign and strategic policy regime needs to be driven by an internal logic that makes its positions clear to foreign business interests, that can manage strategic alliances and rivalries and that can garner support at home. In short it needs identifiable substance.
The concern today is that our ‘born-to-rule’ PM and real estate agent Treasurer have none.