Argument

Australia’s Mr. China

Canberra's new prime minister has a plan to shake up the country's balancing act between the United States and China. And Washington might not like it.

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Under Tony Abbott, who until mid-September was the prime minister of Australia, the country trod an uneasy path between its major trading partner and its major ally. For the past two years, as strategic rivalry between China and the United States escalated, Australia did its best to pretend that nothing was amiss. “We do not have to choose between Washington and Beijing” was the unspoken mantra for Abbott’s government, as it was for his predecessor Kevin Rudd’s Labor government.

In Washington, where Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting for a major and contentious state visit this week, the debate is whether to welcome and accept China’s rise — or to prevent it. But in Australia, both major parties have tried desperately to reassure Australians that they can continue to rely on China to make them rich, while the United States keeps them safe. In 2013, 32 percent of Australia’s exports, valued at $75 billion, went to China; the United States, on the other hand, is a major trading partner that has had a strong mutual security treaty with Australia since shortly after World War II. Never has Canberra acknowledged that China’s growing wealth and power mark any kind of fundamental shift in Australia’s international environment — nor has it acknowledged that Australia needs a new strategy to deal with an increasingly strong China.

But with the surprise ascendance of Malcolm Turnbull, who ousted Abbott in a dramatic leadership challenge on Sept. 14, that might change. If his speeches and public statements over the last four years are any indication, Turnbull may be much more willing to articulate a distinctively Australian view of how Asia’s future order should adapt to China’s growing power.

Less than a week into his stint as prime minister, he had already confronted the issue. Asked to name major threats to global security in a Sept. 21 interview, he replied, “What we need to ensure is that the rise of China … is … conducted in a manner that does not disturb the security and the relative harmony of the region.” It’s an issue, he added, that “I’ve taken a very keen interest in.” Bluntly acknowledging the nature and seriousness of the policy challenge posed by China’s rise is an important new departure in Australian foreign policy.

And before taking office, Turnbull spoke intelligently, and often, about China and its place in the world. In a January speech, he described Asia’s rise, led by China, as “the great geopolitical transformation of our time.” And in August, he cautioned against underestimating the depth and robustness of China’s economic achievement, praising its success in moving from low-wage copycat manufacturing to a more services- and innovation-intensive model. In these speeches, Turnbull has argued that the massive shift in wealth and geopolitical weight from the West to the East will profoundly change the global and regional order in ways the West does not yet understand. “How ready are Western nations and Western-dominated multilateral institutions to adapt to a very different distribution of global power than that which they’ve been used to?” he asked in his January speech.

In particular, Turnbull has questioned whether Washington understands how to respond to China’s rise. While he has endorsed U.S. President Barack Obama’s Asia pivot as “a vitally important stabilizing, reassuring factor in the peaceful development of our region,” he also said in 2011 that the United States seems “utterly flummoxed” by the new challenges it faces in Asia. That strong language suggests that as prime minster, Turnbull may urge Washington to build a new kind of relationship with China — one that acknowledges China’s increased power and accommodates its growing ambitions. And yet he has also criticized Beijing over its behavior toward contested territory in the South China Sea, saying in his January 2015 speech that “there seems little doubt that the tough line [taken by China] on the disputed islands and reefs has been quite counterproductive.”

The failure of Abbott, during his two-year term, to address these vital issues may simply have reflected his inability to take China’s challenge to U.S. leadership in Asia seriously. His career focus on domestic political issues meant he had little direct experience of China, and as prime minister he prioritized hot-button issues like illegal immigration and terrorism. Moreover, his worldview reflected an unshakable faith in the U.S.-led global order, and he seemed unable to comprehend how China’s rise might affect it.

By contrast, Turnbull knows China very well. While Rudd, who speaks fluent Mandarin, knows China as a scholar, Turnbull knows it as a businessman. He invested in mining there in the 1990s, among other ventures, visits frequently, and has built up an impressively detailed understanding of how the country works. Turnbull does not seem to doubt that China will remain by far the most important source of future economic opportunities for Australia and that keeping relations with Beijing smooth will be essential to Australia’s success. Like Rudd, Turnbull will likely argue that China’s growing wealth and power make it inevitable, and desirable, that the world will recognize its ambitions for a greater regional leadership role. But unlike Rudd, who waited until after he had left politics to expound these views, Turnbull may well be willing to do so as prime minister.

Despite his predecessors’ unwillingness to discuss the relationship while in office, Australia has in fact been treading a delicate line between Washington and Beijing for several years. After Canberra eagerly supported Obama’s pivot to Asia by agreeing to host U.S. Marines in the city of Darwin in 2011, there was a need to “correct the recent tilt away from China and the too-desperate embrace of the US,” former Foreign Minister Bob Carr wrote in his 2014 memoir, to avoid the risk of a rift with Beijing. In June, for example, Australia joined China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, ignoring pressure from Washington to abstain.

How to handle the intensifying strategic rivalry between the United States and China will be Turnbull’s biggest challenge. Would Australia be willing to support U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Beijing over alleged cyberattacks, at the cost of damage to its own vital trade with China? Hardest of all, would Australia fulfill the expectations of its alliance with the United States under the Australia, New Zealand, and United States Security Treaty by contributing forces to support the United States in any armed clash with China over maritime issues in the South China Sea or over the disputed island of Taiwan? Or would it protect its links with Beijing by staying on the sidelines? As U.S.-China tensions grow, these questions are no longer merely hypothetical for Canberra. And Turnbull might be the Australian prime minister finally willing to articulate answers for them.

Photo credit: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

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