ASPI executive director Peter Jennings has issued a renewed warning for Australian policymakers: “Beware the wolf”, as Beijing steps up its economic and political coercion attempts of Australia.
There is an old saying that "while the Lion is the King of the Jungle, the Wolf doesn't perform in the circus", which seeks to highlight the unpredictable and dangerous nature of the wolf, even for skilled experts.
While it might seem like an odd analogy, many public policy and strategic policy experts around the world have long believed that they more than suitably prepared for the rise of China and its increasingly belligerent attempts to economically, politically and strategically coerce regional and global powers.
It is now clear that even in the hands of skilled diplomats, politicians and strategic minds, the threat was minimised in favour of the economic prosperity and growth provided by the rising superpower, often to the detriment of national security and resilience, something, in the aftermath of COVID-19's devestating impact, we are now all too aware of.
Australia, in particular, is vulnerable to these efforts and has been for some time, with Chinese foreign direct investment worth approximately $16 billion at its peak in 2016 and the superpower's voracious appetite for raw resources, financial and education services, and quality agricultural the foundation of the now strained relationship between the two nations.
This new reality comes as a shock, particularly as Australia has enjoyed relative geographic isolation from the flashpoints of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century.
Blessed with unrivalled resource wealth and, despite public commentary an immense industrial potential, the nation has enjoyed the benevolence of the post-Second World War order, caught up in the promise of easy wealth generation through unfettered globalisation, economic neo-liberalism and the "end of history".
In response to the growing levels of economic and political coercion, now expanded to target Australian wheat, ASPI executive director Peter Jennings has issued a renewed warning for serious consideration, asking an important and poignant question:
"What is China trying to achieve by its sudden lurch to a bullying, 'wolf warrior' global stance? For all the billions of dollars of intelligence hardware and software pointed at Beijing right now, the reality is that Xi Jinping’s strategic thinking is a black box.
"The leadership intent of the Communist Party must be glimpsed through opaque speeches, the coded signals of coercive behaviour and the increasingly unhinged statements of China’s diplomats and party-controlled media," Jennings posits.
Be thankful the mask slipped now
For Jennings, the now blatantly obvious regional and global ambitions of President Xi Jinping, particularly in the aftermath of COVID-19 and its ensuing economic, political and strategic impact is both a blessing and a curse, and needs to be approached as such.
However, Jennings also counts the lucky stars that Beijing under President Xi took a dramatically different path to what was proposed under former Chinese statesman, Deng Xiaoping, stating, "Here’s one measure of how quickly and dramatically things have changed: on January 20 this year John Howard chaired the 'sixth annual Australia-China High Level Dialogue' sponsored by the Foreign Affairs Department, whose press release claimed that 'the Dialogue will help strengthen partnerships and friendships, maintain trust and develop deeper understanding between Australia and China'.
"Eight months later not one word of that sentence could be applied to our relationship with China. Even China’s rusted-on Australian cheer squad is losing vigour in claiming it is Canberra’s lack of pragmatic wordsmithing that’s causing the rift.
"Had China continued down the Deng Xiaoping-mandated path of 'Hide your capacities, bide your time', I’m no longer sure Australia would have been able to muster the collective willpower to prevent the wholesale compromising of our economy, political system, critical infrastructure, universities and business community — such was the attraction of Chinese money.
"In reality, COVID-19 and wolf warrior coercion was the wake-up call we needed, but that still leaves the essential puzzle about why it is that Beijing abandoned a strategy that was delivering its objectives and replaced it with an approach that is damaging its position."
Australia has in someways been willfully blind as to Beijing's ambitions in both the Indo-Pacific and more broadly around the world, emphasising the economic relationship and the immense potential over the security realities.
In particular, Jennings believes Australia should avoid bending the knee to Beijing, rather navigating the relationship from a position of strength, because at this point in the relationship everything Canberra says or does will be taken as an insult by an increasingly sensitive regime, saying: "The point for Australia is simply that, short of complete capitulation of our interests and values, there is nothing Canberra can do or say that will avoid China’s criticism.
"This needs to be understood by elements of the Australian business community and university sectors that persist in thinking Beijing’s behaviour is somehow the result of our actions — like the claim by one commentator in this newspaper last week that China is 'ruthlessly exploited' because we are forcing them 'to pay exorbitant prices for iron ore'. Seriously? So much for supply and demand."
Masters of our own destiny
For far too long Australia has deferred to the leadership and guidance of others, preferring to be shaped by the economic, political and strategic realities of the world.
In doing so, as a nation we have failed to reach our true potential, we have failed to become the masters of our own destiny and we have failed to bend the majesty and potential of the continent to our will, often leaving the nation equally as vulnerable to domestic shocks as it is to global ones.
As Australia and the globe enter what could be the single greatest economic depression since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Australia has two choices, be defined by the global shocks and continue to limp along as our regional neighbours surge ahead or grasp the reins and drive our own future.
There are some models to follow, ranging from the New Deal of US president and wartime leader Franklin Delano Roosevelt or, looking more closely to our regional neighbours, South Korea's recently announced 'Korean New Deal', which leverages the length and breadth of state power to develop an economic transformation strategy for the 21st century.
In order to achieve this Australia must not only embrace the very real potential of becoming the "poor white trash of Asia" as so eloquently established by Lee Kuan Yew.
But, Australia should also use such an outcome as a rallying call, a wall against our back to unify and pull the nation in a common direction, shaking off one of the very apt criticisms of Australian policy making: the fact that public policy-making decisions are based on the comparatively short election cycles and further impacted by conflicting jurisdictional interests and actions.
In light of this, it is time for Australia to plan for the next 15 to 20 years, not the next term of state, territory or federal government, providing policy consistency, vision for the public and surety in a period of global and regional turmoil.
Jennings explains the critical importance of an Australian response to these challenges, particularly as the balance of power between the US and China continues to narrow towards parity, stating: "In my assessment, this undermines the argument that Australia should some how try to plot a 'middle course' between the US and China. Beijing’s current approach does not leave room for the possibility that countries can shape a course that is in any way different from China’s definition of what the right behaviour should be.
"Based on this assessment of Chinese strategic motivations, it is highly likely Beijing’s more assertive approach will continue if Xi stays in office. This is going to hurt Australia, but the only mitigation is to reduce our economic dependence on China.
"It is desperately important for Australian interests that whoever is the American president after November, the US sets down a set of clear red lines on Chinese behaviour on Taiwan and Asian security more widely.
"Finally, Australia needs to keep accelerating the pace of our own military plans, especially adding to our deterrent capacity with sufficient hitting power to raise the costs and challenges for any potential aggressor that might wish to do us harm."
Each of these contribute to the nation's sovereignty and security at a time when many of the principles that Australia's post-Second World War public and strategic policy is based upon coming under threat – serving to make Australia a more reliable economic, political and strategic partner amid a period of great power competition.
Furthermore, it serves to make Australia more resilient to man-made and natural shocks, resistant to coercion, economically competitive and robust at a time when the Australian public are calling for leadership, forward planning and vision.
Australia is defined by its economic, political and strategic relationships with the Indo-Pacific and the access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the 21st century’s era of great power competition and global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the longstanding strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation’s approach to our regional partners.