Looming China?

| June 22, 2017

The recent Fairfax Press and the ABC’s Four Corners’ expose of Chinese billionaires contributing to politicians and political parties in Australia has opened up some worrying questions. Are they seeking to buy influence? If so, how successful have they been?

Allegations have also been aired about the role of Chinese students studying in Australia. Are some of them spying on their fellow students? Are they being manipulated by Beijing via the Chinese Embassy in Canberra to demonstrate (placards and slogans supplied) in support of the Chinese government ‘s push into the South China Sea, or related matters?

Before we get caught up in the mounting hysteria about what China may (or may not) be up to, it is important to step back for a moment and get things in perspective.

Of course, as a rising power in the Asia Pacific, China will use all sorts of “soft power” strategies (including spying and recruiting compliant students) to advance its interests. But it is certainly not alone in this. The United States has been doing similar things (and some very dubious things) for years – in Australia and wherever it seeks to promote America’s interests.

And as Wikileaks revealed a couple of years ago, Australia is most certainly doing it. Remember how Australian spies were caught out eaves dropping on the phone conversations of the Indonesian President and his wife! Moreover, we should be in no doubt that Australia is in cahoots with the Americans spying on China via the Pine Gap communications base in the Northern Territory.

Covert interference in the affairs of sovereign states, spying, bribing officials, under-cover operations (including assassinations), manipulating students and others – such actions are by no means exclusive to James Bond movies. They are realities entrenched in the often ugly games of international politics.

With is in mind, what is to be done?

First, we must ensure that there are laws in place to limit (if not eliminate) any overseas interference in our political processes. Initially this means ensuring that all political donations – to political parties and to individual politicians – are publicly reported in real time. At the same time overseas donations to politicians and political parties must be made illegal.

Secondly, we must not allow the increasingly hyped accounts of what China is doing to stampede us into complying with everything the United States wants us to do.

Australian foreign policy is now at a crossroads. Some would have us turn left to Beijing, to accommodate the fact that China is our most lucrative resources export market. Others would have us turn right to Washington, to re-embrace the American alliance as if our security, our national identity, our very future depend on it.

Either a turn to the left or to the right will be a terrible mistake. Australia needs to proceed straight ahead, shaping a fully independent place for itself in the Asia Pacific and the world. Neither China nor America can – nor will they ever – guarantee our prosperity and security. Big powers always place their own interests ahead of all else. Only if it is in their interests to play ball with us, will they do so. If it’s not in their interests they will take up their bat and ball and go straight home, ignoring us.

It’s time for Australia to forge a new identity for itself in the Asia Pacific – as a trustworthy, independent, state, a friend of all and an enemy of none, ready to cooperate in international forums, a “good global citizen” (to borrow Gareth Evans’ term). In taking the road ahead we could look to some of the Scandinavian states that are very good at being admirably independent in regional and global affairs.

Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science in the University of Melbourne.