Australians are split between stark distrust and blind optimism over the rising power The latest uproar about who said what about American B-1 bombers being stationed in Australia is symptomatic of a phenomenon I have been struck by since moving to this country in 2011.
From time to time one opens the newspaper to find a minor bombshell related to Australia’s security, usually about the deepening of the alliance between Australia and the US. Nearly without exception the source of the news is the US, either a US government official — as was the case with the B-1 bombers — or an American news report, in which the mention of Australia’s involvement is a minor detail. After the Australian media picks it up, Australian government officials scramble to deny it or confirm it, and hasten to add that nothing about our co-operation with the US is aimed at China.
One of the first such episodes was the appointment in 2012 of Australian Army Major-General Rick Burr to serve as the deputy commanding general (operations) of the US Army in the Pacific. It was one of the highest ranking assignments of its kind and unprecedented, according to defence specialists in both countries. But Australia’s (Labor) government was silent about it.
After the American Secretary of the Army announced the appointment it was uploaded on the website of the US Department of Defence but not on its Australian equivalent. It is almost as if the Australian government — whether Labor or Coalition — does not trust its citizenry and thinks the public does not need to be notified of decisions that have a bearing on Australia’s security.
Security-related issues are sensitive. They are in every country. But a public discussion of such an issue prepares citizens for what in the end becomes public knowledge in any case.
James Brown, my colleague at the United States Studies Centre, wrote last year: “By not having a public conversation about the future posture of the US Navy on Australia’s west coast, the government cedes the ground to critics who argue that the US alliance should be done away with.” In my discussions a month ago with defence officials in Washington I was told that American officials continually “push” their Australian counterparts, not only to take on more responsibility within the alliance but also to make public plans that have been agreed upon.
The second phenomenon that I have been struck by is the depth of the gulf between those Australians who see China through a lens of stark distrust, specifically the security establishment, and those Australians who view China through the rosiest of lenses, in other words the business community.
In every country a gulf exists between security and business interests. But nowhere — based on my experiences in Europe and the US — is this gulf so deep as in Australia. These opposing China constituencies operate nearly entirely without interacting. This can hardly be in Australia’s national interests.
Even though the tension between ensuring Australia’s security and its prosperity will inevitably always be there, it would be useful for these opposite groups to at least know more about the reasoning behind each other’s stances.
Understanding the other party’s rationale might also inject a modest degree of respect towards the other. I am often aghast at the disdain security officials have for representatives of the China-focused business community, and vice versa.
These two phenomena drove me to establish China Matters, a non-profit public policy initiative. Our goal is to serve as a catalyst for a more nuanced — and honest — discussion about China’s rise and its implications for Australia, and to promote sound China policy.
Our first national meeting will be in Canberra today. I am encouraged not only by the support of a diverse group of distinguished Australians who are my fellow board directors and sit on the advisory council but also by the desire of senior corporate and government representatives to participate in the meeting.
Australia’s diplomatic skills are bound to be severely tested as the relationship between China and the US grows more contentious. Some degree of comprehension and desire to work out reasonable and workable ways forward among the diverse China constituencies in Australia would be beneficial to the enormous challenge that lies ahead for any Australian government.
Linda Jakobson is the founding director of a new public policy initiative, China Matters (chinamatters.org.au). She is also a visiting professor at the US Studies Centre at Sydney University and a non-resident fellow of the Lowy Institute.