Former Prime Minister and Cabinet adviser Andrew Forrest has called for a robust conversation with the Australian public to help soothe the nation’s decaying relationship with its major economic partner, also echoing calls for a renewed Australian vision for the region.
If asked, much of the Australian population would appear divorced from the broader evolution and deterioration of the global and regional economic, political and strategic order their lives are built upon.
It is important to highlight that it is not a judgement, it is the reality of Australia’s geographic isolation from the major conflagrations and existential threats to national and individual security which upended much of the Northern Hemisphere during the 20th century – Australians simply don’t know any different.
While we have struggled through decades of natural disasters from sweltering droughts, to flooding rains and tremendous cyclones, with policymakers responding in an ad hoc way off the back of public backlash, much of the Australian public is only tangentially impacted.
Off the back of these factors, many would be forgiven for thinking the Australian public and its policymakers are complacent and are asleep at the wheel, while there are some glimmers of hope, that would appear to be very much the case.
However, it appears that the Australian public are waking from a dreamlike slumber, with the perfect storm of catalysts, disastrous bushfires, droughts and now the economic and societal impacts of COVID-19 now further highlighted by Beijing’s growing attempts to force compliance through political and economic coercion.
While polling recently conducted by the Lowy Institute has revealed some startling details regarding the Australian public’s views of the government’s response to Beijing’s attempts at economic, political and strategic coercion, the Australia-US alliance and the broader challenges to Australia’s national sovereignty, providing interesting insights for public policy debate and consideration.
Expanding on this, former Prime Minister and Cabinet adviser Andrew Forrest (no, not the mining magnate) has penned a piece for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute titled “Calmly worrying about China is good for all of us” in which he details the need for less anxiety, more communication and clearer objectives for the China-Australia relationship and Australia’s role, vision and objectives for the Indo-Pacific region.
Establishing the scene, Forrest presents important questions, “Getting other countries to openly defer to China’s interests has long been viewed by China’s leaders as a symbol of their international worth. When that can no longer be done, or at least becomes much harder to do, what then?
“Will the continued shift in capitals around the world away from doing anything to maintain a ‘good relationship’ with China towards a new hard-headed approach be accepted by Beijing in time, or will it change China’s view of its external environment in ways that make life more challenging for all of us?”
Where to from here?
Australia has increasingly born the brunt of what can best be described as a temper tantrum by Beijing, as the rising superpower seeks to punish those who question its official narrative for the COVID-19 pandemic, its handling of the containment and blatant manipulation of the World Health Organisation, and has served to stimulate Australia’s own public debate.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s handling of the crisis on the global stage, followed by the nation’s stalwart support of the international rules-based order, has also served to earn the wrath of an increasingly fragile and sensitive Chinese regime which is turning to economic, political and in some cases strategic coercion in an attempt to influence Australian public opinion.
These attempts to force compliance have no doubt impacted the sentiment of the Australian public, and no amount of being branded racist by media outlets linked to Xi Jinping’s government will change the increasing amount of anxiety felt by a society confronting a period of increasing global economic, political and strategic disruption.
For Forrest, this requires Australia to double down on its efforts to protect and promote its sovereignty, its national interests and the economic, political and strategic order much of the world’s prosperity and stability is built upon.
Forrest explains, “For Australia, that means continuing to demonstrate our willingness to defend our sovereignty and national interests in ways that are considered, consistent and easy to understand.”
The most important part of this statement, Forrest also expresses a growing need for the Australian public to not only be engaged in the growing debate about the relationship, but equally the planning for Australia’s future vision for itself and the Indo-Pacific.
Forrest goes further, stating, “It also means putting forward an Australian vision of the future of the region and the world that helps more Australians appreciate the nature of the China challenge and the context in which the bilateral relationship has deteriorated.”
Speak softly and carry a big stick
One thing can be clearly taken from the Lowy Institute’s startling polling results – the Australian public now agree that the nation needs a drastically different approach to the one which has in particular dominated the last three decades of foreign, economic, industrial and national security policy.
However, for Forrest, this also has to be done in a considered, constructive manner with a key focus on rebuilding Australia’s relationship with the world’s emerging superpower as a result of Beijing’s increasing sensitivity to criticism, stating: “A larger cross-section of the Australian community needs to understand that our words and actions are now linked to China’s conceptions of its threat environment in ways that they were not before.
“And that we are in the nerve-striking phase of a long game that compartmentalism and shortsightedness will not help us play well. We are more vulnerable than we used to be, but necessarily so.”
Expanding on this, Forrest adds that Australia’s public policy debate cannot be dictated by short-term business interests masquerading as national interests. “The more widely this is understood, the more likely calls from some Australian business leaders for Canberra to just ‘fix’ the relationship through any means will be seen for what they are: misrepresentations of Australia’s long-term national interests and the scale and nature of the challenge we are facing.”
To support this, Forrest believes expanding the nation’s political discourse to directly include the Australian public, not only to form a cohesive, publicly supported plan, but also to help reduce and limit potential public anxiety about China’s ambitions for the Indo-Pacific and broader global balance of power.
“Raising public awareness is in some respects more important and useful than trying to penetrate the black box of Chinese government decision making, and certainly easier.
“Much time and energy can be wasted predicting how China will react to the next ‘crossed line’ or whether a punishment for one indiscretion was intended to signal something to someone else – often to no avail. But making people think about what it is about China’s political system that makes a genuinely constructive bilateral relationship difficult to build serves practical functions,” Forrest explains.
Listen to the public to help limit anxiety
Forrest’s calls for greater engagement with the Australian public is echoed by the feedback of the 2,500 Australians who responded to the Lowy Institute’s polling, which revealed some startling details about the sentiments held by the Australian public towards our largest trading partner and emerging competitor, including that eight in 10 Australians would “approve of travel and financial sanctions on Chinese officials associated with human rights abuses”.
Alex Oliver and Natasha Kassam of the Lowy Institute set the scene and sentiment of the Australian public as they come to terms with the early stages and impacts of a new era of “great power competition”.
“The view from Australia today is sobering. Having barely emerged from the bushfire crisis, we were struck with a global pandemic and our borders remain closed to the world,” Oliver and Kassam explain.
“Against this backdrop, the 2020 Lowy Institute Poll, released on Wednesday, finds Australians feel far more distrustful, pessimistic and less secure than at any point in its 16-year history.
“Only half of Australians report feeling safe, a remarkable 28-point drop from 2018. And the same number feel optimistic about Australia’s economic performance in the next decade, the lowest level of economic optimism recorded in the poll.”
This polling also revealed that Australian confidence in China’s President Xi Jinping plummeted 22 per cent, with an overwhelming majority of Australians, some 94 per cent, calling for the Australia to “reduce our economic dependence on China”, which is described as “the most emphatic consensus on an issue in the survey’s 16-year history”.
It is also critical to identify that while “nearly four in five respondents said the nation’s alliance with the United States was important to Australia’s security, up six points since last year’s poll”, only 51 per cent of the respondents believed they could “trust the US to act responsibly”.
Forrest supports this, stating, “A more attuned public understanding of the Chinese government’s modus operandi would certainly make it more difficult for Beijing to spread disinformation intended to make us second-guess our own positions and decisions.
“Australia’s relationship with China is complex and evolving. Popular opinion of it needs to be informed and measured, not hard and panicked. Worrying calmly together about the right things at the right time will prevent the mistrust of China that polling indicates has long been present in the Australian community from morphing into self-defeating fear and anger.
“And it will probably make us feel better,” Forrest explains.
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 choke points 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.
Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce also issued a challenge for Australia’s political and strategic policy leaders, saying:
“If we observe that the level of debate among our leaders is characterised by mudslinging, obfuscation and the deliberate misrepresentation of the views of others, why would the community behave differently ... Our failure to do so will leave a very damaging legacy for future generations.”
Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever-present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience.
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 economic, political and strategic approach to our regional partners.