Things must be getting bad in Australian foreign policy circles when the perennial bug-bear, Australia’s relations with China, gets yet another run in what appears a never-ending public debate. A former Defence strategist (Hugh White) versus a former Prime Minister (Paul Keating), both trying to justify their respective position on Australian/Chinese/American relations. But ultimately Australia’s role in the Asia-Pacific is based on one truth – Australia is the only regional state with a majority European population, and relatively inclusive political and economic institutions. This presents Australia with a major problem. It can’t get close to Asian governments nor can it fully integrate with them. It is no wonder therefore, that while Canberra pays a lot of lip-service to its relations with Asia, these relations are primarily based on an acceptance that it is business and foreign investment flows that characterise Australia’s relationship with Asia, not a fondness for how the countries of Asia are governed. Even larger intakes of Asian migrants can’t fix this dilemma. Most Asian migrants to Australia want to be more Australian and buy into the political, social and economic inclusiveness that we’ve cultivated since federation (1901). Having more Chinese students or migrant communities springing up in inner city Australian suburbs might mean more and better Chinese restaurants, but it does not translate to better relations with China per se. Contemporary China is a totalitarian state and that will not change in the near future. Australia’s interest, as a market-driven democracy, is to ensure that the current Chinese political apparatus in Beijing keeps buoying our economy. Therefore, a willingness to foster the creative destruction necessary for China’s political elite to change to a more inclusive, democratic form of politics is, apart from the occasional motherhood statement, found wanting in our foreign policy documents. Our relationship with China is based upon fostering China’s internal stability, that means, keeping the status quo and managing any obvious awkwardness. Democratisation by its very nature would wreck havoc on the current friendly Sino-Australian business environment. No amount of speculation over China’s role in the world (many assuming that the Chinese politburo will simply keep power for the duration) can hide the fact that a debate about whether Australia should orientate to the ‘reality’ of Chinese hegemony in the Western Pacific, or tie itself closer to its traditional strategic ally, leads to one inescapable conclusion. America, as a European-derived market-driven democracy with political, linguistic, social and cultural similarities, will always be considered Australia’s ‘natural’ partner. Talk of Australia’s integration with Asian governments would only have merit if we reconcile ourselves with the reality that actual integration doesn’t simply require more Asian people, delicacies or goods. It would require Australia’s political elite to be more extractive and repressive. It would require Australia to become a place where a government’s hold on power becomes its central tenet. Only then could we see things from the so-called ‘Asian’ perspective and make peace with the much-lauded ‘Asian way’ of development.
By Dr. John Bruni, Director SAGE International