Blueprint for failure

Australia faces an inevitable crisis, led by a government that couldn’t be less capable of its handling.

It wasn’t impossible to plan for this moment. As its power grew, China was always going to chafe against the presence of Australia, the United States’ most loyal ally, in Asia. Similarly, it was clear that Australia would bridle against Beijing’s attempts to assert power and influence.

But rather than plan for the inevitable, Scott Morrison remains knee-jerk reactive, years after his elevation to the prime ministership – launching a clumsy all-out offensive over a tweet.

Perhaps this is unsurprising from a government that’s shown itself to be chronically averse to planning – refusing to even commit to a 2050 net zero emissions target. But as with climate change, China’s rise isn’t something Australia can weather by ignoring its reality.

We have no overarching strategy to guide this relationship. No vision for how it could look. We have abandoned the “Asian Century” and failed to install anything in its place. The crisis gripping Australia and China’s relationship has thrived in this policy vacuum.

Scott Morrison, our most provincial prime minister in recent memory, is not equipped to navigate this impasse. Yet he will not stand back and let the experts work their quiet diplomacy.

Diplomats have been sidelined as Morrison tries to score domestic political points against our largest international trading partner. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade budget has been slashed this year, as has foreign aid. Meanwhile, Home Affairs and military spending has ballooned.

Our approach to China has always been that of the carrot and the stick – the promise of shared economic prosperity in a stable and flourishing region; the visible threat of Australia’s close military ties with the US.

This delicate balance has been disastrously mismanaged by a government that has no idea what it hopes to achieve.

Similarly, a dearth of planning has left our economy acutely vulnerable to Beijing’s moods.

A responsible government would have adequately funded our universities long ago and helped to moderate their reliance on Chinese international students. The Morrison government was satisfied to indulge in ideological blame games once the pandemic struck.

A leader with an eye to the future would’ve seen the promise of renewables as an opportunity to wrest our resources-intensive economy away from dependence on China. But then again, that leader wouldn’t have doubled down on fossil fuels in the first place.

Australia’s relationship with China cannot return to the relative stability of the Howard years. The world has changed and, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, Beijing has become increasingly autocratic.

As such, it is right for Australia to call out the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uygur people. We should similarly denounce the prison sentences handed down to Hong Kong democracy activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam.

But as the China relationship devolves, so does Australia’s leverage and our ability to coax any action from Beijing. We can signal our country’s virtues, but what is the point if we cannot bring them into being?

What is the plan? What is the goal? Is it an apology for a juvenile meme, or a peaceful transition as China becomes the world’s pre-eminent superpower – so that we can ensure continued democratic freedoms in our region?

These are the questions Scott Morrison needs to answer, but first he needs to ask them.     

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 5, 2020 as "Blueprint for failure".

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