Is Australia becoming the ‘lonely’ country?

Monday, Aug 28, 2017, 11:26 PM | Source: Pursuit

By Anthony Milner

Is Australia becoming the 'lonely' country?

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More than any of our nearest neighbours, Australia has clung to the United States, and has taken longer than most to recognise the danger of doing so in the era of Donald Trump. The latest Lowy Institute Poll of Australian attitudes shows the true tenacity of this attachment.

Under the Trump Administration, Australian support for the US Alliance (though not the actual US President) has grown, and we continue to express a strong preference for New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom over any other country.

As a trading partner, China is more important to Australia than it is to any other country in the region. Picture: Getty

There is also a marked lack of warmth in Australian attitudes toward our closest neighbour, Indonesia – the largest Muslim country in the world. And now we're in danger of being left out of the regional conversation.

To get a sense of that conversation, Asialink surveyed the views of a range of leading commentators across Asia, to gauge their responses to the biggest player in this region: China. The full results of this research will be published shortly.

And when it comes to China's regional and international leadership, the gap between our views and those of our neighbours is troubling.

Australians are increasingly focused on China. But our preoccupations seem narrow, limited and consistently negative – a surprising thing, given we are more economically entangled with China than any other regional country.

Certainly, the Asian respondents raise familiar anxieties. They pose questions about transparency and good governance, and ask whether Chinese investments will primarily advantage Chinese interests. Added to that is concern that these interests are likely to be strategic as much as commercial.

Take tourism for example. Will China turn off the tap of Chinese tourists "to punish any Asian governments", as Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a Fellow at the ASEAN Studies Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore suggests?

There's also a "trust deficit" in several parts of the region when it comes to China – a sense, as Professor Aileen Baviera from the University of the Philippines puts it, that China "does not enjoy much soft power".

But where the Asian responses are immediately different to those of Australia is in their full acknowledgement of China's leadership – in the context of deep strategic transformation. This explicit assertion of leadership is something Australian commentary has failed to grasp. The Asialink respondents are not always positive, but they acknowledge time and again that China is offering to fill a vacuum.

In the words of the Chancellor of the University of Malaya, Sultan Nazrin Shah, China is developing for the region and the world a new 'grand design'. From time to time in world history, he says, there have been 'grand designs' – and today China has a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that aims to "stimulate transcontinental trade and cultural exchange to a level not known before".

For their part our Chinese commentators are hesitant to describe China's initiatives as an assertion of leadership. Professor Liu Aming from the Institute of International Relations at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences prefers to use the word 'partnership' rather than 'leadership' – but she knows China is a "big power" and will therefore be "more influential than many other countries." Peking University's Zha Daojiong insists China is "but one of the many players in the BRI endeavour" but admits that "some rhetoric out of China" is claiming "regional and international leadership".

China's leadership claims in the region have a long history dating back thousands of years. Picture: Wikimedia

It is the commentators from outside China who are most open about the strategic shift in Asia.

Research fellow Jusuf Wanandi from Indonesia's Centre for Strategic and International Studies believes that China is convinced it will have to fill the "lacuna and gaps" opened up especially by Donald Trump. A prominent Cambodian scholar says the "Washington consensus" is "in decline"; while Dr Chalermpalanupap believes the US simply has "no capability" to offer the leadership in infrastructure development that China is providing.

Asialink's Asian commentators – whether supportive or opposed – have no doubt about the far-reaching scale of what China is offering. Its leadership claims, as our Cambodian analyst suggests, are based on two thousand years of relations with Southeast Asia. Malaysian scholar and former senior diplomat Redzuan Kushairi recognises China as developing a "grand geo-political strategy… to gain acceptance as a new world power".

Southeast Asians, it would seem, are comfortable with a multi-hub approach – they believe it gives them a degree of autonomy or elbow room. Singaporean diplomat, Bilahari Kausikan has written that "the preferred strategy" for ASEAN countries is "to maximise autonomy by keeping options open and maintaining the best possible relationship with all the major powers".

This is unfamiliar territory for alliance-dependent Australians.

A second take-away from Asialink's survey relates to the question of whether China's rise will require a re-writing of 'the rules' in international interaction, that is, liberal democratic institutions established in the post-World War Two era. Dr Wanandi judges that there will be no need to "replace all the old rules and institutions" – but some change will be necessary since these old rules "were established by the Western countries".

It would be hard for Australians to argue against this last view.

The third, most important reflection arising from the survey is about awareness. Australia has become disconnected from its own region because it has failed to realise just how much the existing regional and global order is under challenge.

In a possible post-American era, Australia could become a lonely and less secure country – all the more so if we fail to listen to the conversations of our neighbours.

Banner image: NASA