Commentary | 18 April 2016

Turnbull visit leaves tensions unresolved

This piece was originally published in The Australian Financial Review.

  • Rory Medcalf

This piece was originally published in The Australian Financial Review.

  • Rory Medcalf

Executive Summary

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's visit to China last week has been deemed a success in part because the opportunities in Australia-China relations drew more notice than the challenges. But the tensions are unresolved and there are signs they may be worsening.

The diplomatic choreography was adroit. Two brisk days in Shanghai and Beijing were filled with dialogue and announcements about the exciting possibilities, mainly economic relations, between a changing Australia and the rising Asian giant.

There was a proper focus on the gains and challenges in free trade, diversification beyond iron ore, co-operation in science and innovation, even sport.

Unlike some previous visits, this positive bilateral narrative was not drowned out by China's strategic assertiveness - even though frictions are worsening in the contested South China Sea, where, as in the AFL, some say possession is everything.

Without causing gratuitous offence, Mr Turnbull seems to have reiterated Australia's stance opposing coercion and upholding a rules-based order. Let us hope his hopeful rhetoric about China's "long journey towards the rule of law" was not too subtle for its own good.

He has previously criticised China's manufacture of militarised islets in disputed waters. Presumably he withstood the pomp and warmth of his public reception to repeat this mainstay of self-respecting Australian foreign policy in private to the Chinese leadership.

The neat timing of the PM's China visit also avoided the shadow of two major Australian policy statements influenced by security concerns about Chinese power: the defence white paper, released in February, and the cyber security strategy due this week. The defence white paper set out a blueprint for modernisation of Australia's force posture, with an emphasis on maritime capabilities, notably submarines, aimed at protecting national interests amid strategic competition.

The language alluded to uncertainties arising from China's power and the prospect of it ignoring the interests of smaller countries, as in the South China Sea.

The defence white paper did not hide Canberra's determination to strengthen security partnerships with others in our multipolar Indo-Pacific region, including Japan, India and Indonesia as well as our ally the United States.

As a quiet reminder that more than one Asian power matters to Australia's future, a Japanese submarine entered Sydney Harbour on Friday as a welcome visitor.

Critics of the idea that Australia should consider a submarine partnership with Japan fixate on the obvious point that China will not be pleased, and the much more debatable point that somehow it will entangle Australia in future China-Japan crises as an automatic Japanese ally.

To its credit, the government is looking at the submarine bids on their intrinsic merits of capability and cost. If strategic partnership is also a factor, there are upsides to working with Japan and furthering its progress as a constructive contributor to regional stability. Cold-shouldering Japan simply to please Beijing would be harmful to all - including, ultimately, China.

Another shoal Mr Turnbull's China visit steered away from is cyber security.

Officials have indicated publicly that a long-awaited cyber security strategy will be released this Thursday.

This promises to be a vital policy marker in building an Australia more hardened against cyber intrusions, from crime to espionage to disruptive or even crippling attacks.

Regardless of how tactfully the public document is worded, it is safe to assume that a significant part of the context is legitimate concerns over the impact of Chinese cyber operations on Australian security, sovereignty, intellectual property, business negotiating positions and economic wellbeing.

Such activity should seriously concern our business community and the wider public, not just our security caste. The problem relates to the widely reported theft of information from business and government in many countries. It has reportedly occurred on a massive scale in the United States.

There is every reason to assume that we face this risk in Australia, too, as suggested by media reports last year of alleged Chinese cyber infiltration at the Bureau of Meteorology as a gateway to other government networks.

Of course, barring some huge strategic breakdown, China will continue to play a major role in Australia's economic future. By all means, Australia should foster and diversify the opportunities this brings - but with its eyes open and its back doors closed.

 

Professor Rory Medcalf is head of the National Security College at the Australian National University and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.