The Labor government needs to rethink relations with China as the country vies with the US for dominance in the Pacific. By Mike Seccombe.

Reframing the Australia–China relationship

Foreign Minister Penny Wong at the Pacific Islands Forum.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong at the Pacific Islands Forum.
Credit: William West / AFP

Ask Hugh White what has changed in Australia’s fraught relationship with China since the election of the Albanese government and he invokes the law of holes.

“The first law of holes is, if you’re in one, stop digging,” says White, emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University. “The new government’s primary concern has been to at least stop digging quite as bloody energetically.”

In 40 years watching Australia’s approach to international affairs and national security, White can think of no parallel to the way the Morrison government “deliberately tried to exacerbate the tensions with Beijing for political purposes”.

They thought it would help them win an election. It didn’t. Most voters saw the bilateral relationship as a complex issue to be managed rather than a threat to be confronted. Chinese Australians, in particular, were offended, he says, by the “warmongering” talk.

White welcomes the fact that the new government does not issue dire warnings about China’s part of a threatening “arc of autocracy” bent on subverting the international rules-based order, as Morrison did, or utter repeated warnings that we should prepare for war, like former Defence minister Peter Dutton.

But what has really changed other than the rhetoric directed at China? Not much. There was, White says, “no material difference” in policy between the two sides of politics before the election and there still is not.

The new government may have stopped digging, but we’re still in a hole.

“It strikes me that they’re hoping that a change in tone will produce … a substantial improvement in the bilateral relationship,” he says. But he notes, even as the new government has softened its rhetoric towards China, it has continued to mouth “stock phrases”, about the United States, the “indispensable power”.

“It makes me think that they haven’t thought at all deeply about the fundamental problem, which is that we continue to hope and expect America to solve that China problem for us.”

White doesn’t see America solving it. Quite the opposite. Australia’s core problem, he writes in the latest Quarterly Essay, is its “decision to overtly, explicitly and energetically oppose China’s ambition to push America out of East Asia and take its place as the leading regional power”.

And, White reiterates to The Saturday Paper, that is to deny reality. China’s power and influence will inevitably grow, particularly in our part of the world. Already it accounts for 19 per cent of global GDP compared with the US at 16 per cent. By 2035, that gap is likely to widen to 24 versus 14.

“China’s power is something we’re going to have to learn to live with instead of trying to block,” he says.

Other leaders have realised this, he says, pointing to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s speech last week to the Lowy Institute. “She very clearly articulated what Australian political leaders will not articulate”: that it is necessary to be more accommodating of China, notwithstanding our differences.

The new Albanese government is not there yet.

“I think the government is still working out where its sort of resting point is between the desire to maintain continuity … and to take things forward,” says White.

Navigating the great power hostility between the US and China is not going to be easy, as was apparent this week at the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji, where US Vice President Kamala Harris appeared by teleconference promising great largesse to the island nations.

The US would triple economic aid, to nearly $US60 million a year for 10 years, an additional $500 million in funding into the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency in return for fishing rights, an increased diplomatic presence, and more.

No one need have any doubt about America’s motivation, given China’s increasing influence in the nations of the Pacific, and particularly the revelation a few months ago that Solomon Islands had signed a security pact with the country. The Morrison government among others used this news to drum up fears of a Chinese military base there.

In language almost identical to that of Morrison, Harris highlighted the need to unite against “bad actors seeking to undermine the rules-based order”.

She emphasised the need to uphold “principles that allow all states big and small to conduct their affairs free from aggression or coercion”.

The Australian delegation was conspicuously more cautious in its language. It sought to downplay concerns about Chinese influence. Albanese expressed confidence there would be no military base in the Solomons. On Thursday, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare reiterated that there would be no Chinese security base in Solomon Islands.

The minister for the Pacific, Pat Conroy, told The Sydney Morning Herald the government was open to the prospect of collaborating with China on infrastructure in the region.

Compared to its predecessor, says John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at ANU, the Albanese government showed at the forum “a more respectful and attuned approach, dealing with felt needs of the Pacific.

“And that’s particularly climate and the environment. The previous government just couldn’t get its head around that. It had such an ideological fixation on not going there.

“And the Pacific Islanders, by and large, will be inclined to be well disposed to us. I mean, they are overwhelmingly Anglophilic, in the broadest sense. They are English-speaking, common law, former Commonwealth countries by and large – except for the French ones, and, even then, they are Francophilic.

“The elites of these micro-states in the Pacific, they send their kids to school in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland, they don’t send them to Beijing. You know, and they play rugby.

“There is enormous goodwill, but we haven’t played [diplomacy] well in the last few years,” says Blaxland.

That said, it is “completely understandable economically” that China should seek to expand its engagement in the region.

“China is growing economically, and it’s got an insatiable demand for protein, fish stocks, for raw materials, from logging in the Solomons to seabed resources, as yet unexplored in Kiribati and elsewhere,” he says.

Professor James Laurenceson, director of the Australia–China Relations Institute at University of Technology Sydney, underlines that point with a telling statistic: the value of Solomon Islands exports to China is 72 times the value of its exports to Australia.

“So is it really unsurprising that the Solomon Islands government would have some interest in broadening that relationship?

“The idea that we could stop [China’s] engagement in the Pacific is frankly just ridiculous,” he says.

The rather paternalistic approach of the former government, Laurenceson says, suggested the micro-states lacked the agency to manage their own affairs, “as if just because they sign a [memorandum of understanding] with China, that China can do whatever the hell it wants”.

Plenty of other small nations – he names Cambodia and Laos among others much closer to China – manage to engage with the growing power on their own terms.

“Does China have influence? Yes, it does. But there’s massive agency on the parts of those countries themselves,” he says.

Indeed the competition for influence may be beneficial to the Pacific states.

“The Pacific Island nations leverage their sovereignty very well,” says Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute.

“They’ve got the largest exclusive economic zones of any countries in the world, [so] fishing rights are the big one.

“And there’s no reason for them to not try and benefit from both sides,” he says.

“But I think most of the countries there would much prefer to have Australia, New Zealand and to some extent America. We’re more trusted.”

He too thinks the new government’s greater commitment to combating climate change has helped the relationship.

“It’s not true to say the past government ignored the Pacific; it’s just that their policy had one big fat hole in it, which they were unable to address.”

The new government, however, is still far less committed than the island nations would like. They would have the Australian government do as the expert scientific evidence suggests it should and stop any new fossil fuel mining projects. And they have good reason to be demanding. These nations are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change – rising temperatures and sea levels and more intense storms – for which Australia is disproportionately responsible.

Australia’s per capita emissions, according to the World Bank, were 15.2 tonnes in 2019 – exactly twice those of China, and many times those of any of the island states.

Economics and climate are the Pacific Island countries’ great concerns, not the rivalries between larger nations seeking to maintain their spheres of influence.

But that is not to say we should be unconcerned about growing Chinese influence. The focus on the South Pacific during the past week is a topical subset of the broader problem of Australia’s relations with China.

“Look,” says McGregor, “there’s not going to be a military base in the Pacific. But it would be pretty naive to think that China doesn’t want a strategic foothold there if they can get it.

“Four out of the 14 Pacific Island countries recognise Taiwan still. So that makes it strategic. All of the Pacific Island countries have a vote in the UN – that makes it strategic.”

McGregor says Australia’s relations with China has improved since the election, albeit from a very low base.

“I think China had given up on the Morrison government,” he says.

“For three or so years, we had a situation where the relationship had been in freefall. Just when you thought we’d found a floor, you know, another trapdoor opened, and both parties jumped enthusiastically into it. Well, I think that’s stopped and now we’re talking to each other.”

And progress has been quicker than many, including Laurenceson, expected.

“We’re what, seven weeks into the Albanese government? We’ve had a meeting with the Defence minister, we’ve had a meeting of the foreign ministers now. Obviously, there’s been no formal bilateral visits, and the leaders haven’t spoken yet, either,” he says, “but I think the relationship has stabilised, I think there’s been an improvement in the trajectory.”

The change to date may have been mostly rhetorical, “but that is not to dismiss it”, says Blaxland.

“The thing is that words precede actions in Asia. Form precedes function. And actually speaking with a different tone and taking a new approach makes a big difference, even though substantively, policy-wise, there’s not a significant shift at all.”

If we are to get out of the hole, says White, we simply have to change our mindset, and accept that we have to make our way in a region where China will be the dominant power.

He harks back to an oft-recited phrase from Paul Keating, seldom uttered in recent times: “They talked about making ‘our security in Asia, not from Asia’.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "The law of holes".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription