A split in Australia

by Chris Zappone

Why Australian politicians get the US-China thing wrong

There have been a couple interesting articles in the afterman of the AusMin meeting in Perth. One, by David Wroe, suggests that Australia is playing down the extent of the US-Aussie military cooperation. The key line, from Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Peter Jennings, is:

”There’s a bizarre dichotomy of language that’s being used by the Australians on one hand that talks about ‘slow’ and ‘measured’ and ‘incremental’ and the Americans who say, ‘We’re getting on with it’. I think the Aussies are spooked.”

Dichotomy is a word that describes more than the split between the US and Australian government about the pace and outcome of their talks. There is a a dichotomy is Australia about what exactly China’s rise means for Australia. On the one hand, there are those who believe that China will reset the order of the world, particularly of Australia’s, and so the most logical course of action now, is to acknowledge it and plan for it. The reording will lift Australia up the rank of importance, so the thinking goes. Former PM Paul Keating would probably fit into that category. He recently delivered a speech in Melbourne lamenting the diminished influence of Australia in the region because it had grown to close to the US’s in terms of foreign policy. But the concept of embracing the New World of China is hardly limited to disgruntled ex-prime ministers.

The real dichotomy seems to be between those in Australia benefiting from China’s rise – particuarly those in the mining world, the tourism industry, property and even ag exports – and those for which China’s growing power represents less of a boon and in fact, more uncertainty. The fear China generates builts on the underlying unease of Australians that goes right back to the countries founding. You don’t have to be a lecturer in geography to understand that while Australia and New Zealand share much in common, once you cross to Indonesia, or PNG, or Vietnam, Australia in a lot of ways, really doesn’t belong in the neighborhood. And that points back to the question at the heart of Australians’ cultural cringe – making it all the more of an issue never to overtly discuss.

For many of these people, a more powerful China, willing to flex its muscle in the region, introduces a huge variable that is arguably a cause for worry. So if Australia’s politicians, past and present, are sending a mixed signal, there is a matching split in opinion among its citizens. Because a fear of China goes right back to the cultural, historical fear of Asia for the majority of the country, it’s strangely a subject that often doesn’t come up freely in conversation.