The long winter ahead

| March 7, 2021

One of the joys of fatherhood is being reacquainted with the fairy tales and fables of youth. Such stories endure because behind their superficial narratives lies an important moral theme that can apply widely. As the People’s Republic of China’s wintry winds of change have begun to be felt in recent years, Australia’s behaviour reminds me of Aesop’s fable ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper.’

Most of the time, we are Ant-like, which means we’re thoughtful and industrious in our policy choices. We have begun putting serious resources into our defence force, and we have held difficult discussions with regional and alliance partners seeking new forms of cooperation. We have made compromises and put aside a preference for the past season, to accept the changes coming in the new order.

This hasn’t always been easy—witness the divisions over the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or our refusal of US requests to go beyond Operation Gateway in the South China Sea—but we’ve certainly been busy. Taken together, there is a hope that such efforts, while seemingly modest, will better prepare Australia for a difficult future. We aim for the deterrent power to refute, while seeking to modulate the nature and pace of change to preserve a hospitable region.

Australia’s approach to China also has its Grasshopper moments. Where the Ant is stolid, the Grasshopper is joyful in making music. That tendency is evident in much of our public rhetoric. We have clumsily misused Chinese slogans against them, we have been at the forefront of public criticisms, we have taken the lead and boasted of our success. And when the blows in the form of trade sanctions came, we welcomed them with a defiant smile and continued on our merry way.

For the time being, this division is likely to be sustained. While talk of a unifying grand strategy is much loved, most countries have somewhat inconsistent approaches. The bureaucracy sees the value of being the Ant, and an increasing number of politicians (across the political spectrum) know that the Grasshopper’s music is pleasing to the public ear. And so they play on.

It may even be argued that such an approach doesn’t really amount to a division. That the willingness to spend up on defence and call out China’s human rights abuses are part of the same approach. That in showing we won’t be intimidated on barley, we reflect our steel for a future battlefield. That we need to make noise about the errors of China’s current approach, to rally others to our cause and help Beijing realise that if it seeks genuine leadership in Asia a reckoning and revision are necessary.

Perhaps that is so, though most audiences seem confused. At home, the debate about China suffers from the fact that each side can pick a preferred narrative from our disparate words and actions to suit its case. The public has moved ahead of the government in concern about China, yet support for defence spending hasn’t risen, and divisive racism is growing in an ugly fashion.

Abroad, our main ally is uncertain as to our approach (in the jargon of the day, ‘Why join the AIIB and the BRI while also joining the Quad and refusing FONOPS?’). Meanwhile, Beijing’s recent public diplomacy suggests that its Canberra embassy is utterly confused about what this country really is doing.

Summer in the southern hemisphere has now passed. The days are becoming shorter, the nights colder. It is therefore worth asking how each tendency will endure and provide for Australia in the seasons that follow. My own fear is that neither the Ant nor the Grasshopper quite realises the severity of the winter to come. The Ant is still only putting away just over 2% of the harvest for the lean months.

It remains reluctant to pay the costs at home or regionally of necessary decisions. That includes directly engaging the public on future burdens and overhauling relations with Indonesia and the South Pacific to strengthen their help in regional security.

The Grasshopper, meanwhile, has won applause from abroad, but it’s hard to see what lingers beyond the pleasure of the moment. Take the current cause célèbre, Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. Even if China suddenly relented tomorrow and opened the camps, though the net benefit to humanity would be large, the specific Australian interest remains almost non-existent.

In some versions of this famous fable, the Grasshopper seemingly falls into deliverance. Its needs are few, or it finds a lucky fortune that sustains it. Others portray the Ant as a moralising schemer who secretly undermined the Grasshopper, a dullard who can’t see that life should be lived standing up.

Maybe such good fortune awaits us too, in the form of a United States willing to provide us shelter. Aesop’s own story ends just as winter approaches and we don’t learn the protagonists’ fates. One can infer, however, that it isn’t pleasant for the Grasshopper.

Let us hope this remains just a children’s story.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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