Despite Aukus, a China-Australia relationship reset is possible
- Any overreaction by Beijing to this unremarkable alliance of traditional partners would only reinforce their current China ‘threat’ narratives
- The nuclear submarine announcement could prove to be more about geopolitical posturing than anything else
The unremarkable thing about Aukus is the traditional balance of power thinking that underlies it. The US has, since defeating Japan in 1945, believed that it must maintain a strong presence in the Pacific.
China’s subsequent trade sanctions have been as ineffective as US trade sanctions on the countries it seeks to influence. If such actions have driven Australia even deeper into US arms, it is surely time to re-evaluate.
China is capable of managing its relationship with Australia, just as Australia is capable of managing relationships with both China and the US. A reset is possible in the future.
Despite its geography and rich endowments, Australia has never developed a grand strategy for its own security and its role in the neighbourhood. It clutches instead to the apron strings of its traditional protectors, particularly when it feels threatened.
It was not always this way, and may change again. When Australia has had strong and inclusive leadership, it has been a model of social and economic reform and played an outsize role in the region.
It played a visionary role in working with Asian neighbours to design the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, bring China into the World Trade Organization, make peace in Cambodia and East Timor, and welcome students from across the region to its world-class universities.
These examples remind us Australia has not always been as disengaged from its region as its current leadership appears to be.
The decision to invest in long-range nuclear submarines without any domestic nuclear industry makes Australia dependent on the US and UK – distant countries beyond the region – for decades to come.
However, it is not certain Australia will proceed with a technology for which it has no sovereign capability. The nuclear submarine announcement could prove to be more about geopolitical posturing than anything else.
Future governments will have to consider a wider range of strategic considerations demanding attention for Australia’s security.
The Asia-Pacific region is where a new world order is emerging. Asia is the new hub of the international economy and that will result in more evenly distributed power in the global system.
This shift to a multipolar world understandably upsets the US and UK. But must the Asian century generate so much anxiety in Australia? For decades, strong leaders on both sides of Australian politics recognised that the Asian century brings wealth and opportunities to Australia.
Australia and China have strong mutual interests in many fields. Both benefit from trade, investment and people-to-people ties. Even if elements of Australia’s leadership continue to be vocal protagonists for the US-UK view of the world, China is capable of accommodating such a reality.
That’s all the more reason we must take a breath, develop pragmatic confidence-building measures and broaden areas of cooperation to keep the peace, if we are to enjoy a prosperous future.
David Morris is a former Australian and multilateral diplomat