Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Thursday 12 Dec 2019 | 21:41 | SYDNEY

East Asia

In his official engagements in Hanoi, where he landed on Thursday, Scott Morrison is largely sticking to the bromides that have typified his foreign policy since becoming Prime Minister.

The Chinese border, where the People’s Liberation Army and the Vietnamese fought a war in the late 1970s, is only a few hundred kilometres north. Off shore in recent weeks, the Chinese and Vietnamese coast guards have been warily circling each other in contested waters where both are searching for oil.

Yet in Hanoi, the prime minister won’t want to talk directly about China. Instead, his focus will be on trade and security, and the value of preserving the so-called “rules-based order”, an all-purpose phrase which encompasses Australia’s desire to extend the US-led status quo in the region with the longer game of finding palatable alternatives to balance China’s rise.

Morrison’s presence on the ground in Vietnam will be message enough, to Beijing, Washington and the region, about the direction of Australian policy amid an unfolding superpower contest.

Whether it will help satisfy his restive Coalition colleagues, however, and the likes of Andrew Hastie and Dave Sharma, respectively a former soldier and diplomat, who seemed determined to have a say on China from the backbench, is another question.

Morrison’s China policy, such as it is for a prime minister in office for exactly a year, can be boiled down to four words: “Do more; say less.”

The like of Hastie, the chair of the parliament’s intelligence committee, have a different emphasis. More like “do more” and talk about China at the top of your voice at the same time, with the aim of forging a harder policy.

It’s a mystery why anyone thought that Hastie’s recent article warning about the rise of China, drawing ominous parallels with the failure to stop Nazi Germany, was some kind of national awakening.

In recent years, Australia has had a veritable frenzy of policymaking driven by China, from the Pacific step-up to plans for a naval base at Manus Island to gaining control of the Solomon Islands undersea cable and new foreign interference laws.

In what universe is Australia sitting on its hands? Beijing certainly doesn’t think so, which is why the bilateral relationship is so toxic.

For all the obvious common sense in some of Hastie’s points, there is also a worrying ideological edge, building competition with China into a 21st century clash of civilisations.

Leaving aside the fact that Australia, unlike, say, America, doesn’t really do ideology, framing the debate in Manichean terms won’t get you very far in the region.

Vietnam and other partners in the region for Australia, such as Japan and India, aren’t interested in an ideological contest. Vietnam, after all, is a communist state as well.

All three countries have had long experience in dealing with China, pushing back at times and engaging at others. It is an art that Australia is still struggling to emulate.

No one is saying it is easy. Tokyo’s and Beijing’s ties are now in relatively good shape but Asia’s two giants went for years without top-level discussions after relations ruptured in 2012 over a territorial dispute.

Sharma, although for some reason embracing Hastie’s comparison with Hitler’s Germany, has made a better case for a more open debate.

Just as governments in the 1980s and 1990s had to bring the public along with them in selling big economic reforms, so must the current generation of leaders in readying voters for seismic shifts in our strategic circumstances.

Under the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments, Australian voters endured a series of crash courses in economic literacy. The next extended national seminar will be on the rise of China and the decline of the West.

Some of the noise in today’s battles is just the pain of reversing decisions that never should have been made in the first place, such as allowing Confucius Institutes into the government departments and universities.

The difference, though, as any diplomat could tell you, is that having a high-octane debate about domestic politics does not have the same consequences as having an all-in brawl over China.

National security hawks, to take one example, conduct their business in seeming oblivion to Australia’s national interest in its trade and business relationship with China.

In part, this is unsurprising. The security debate is a necessary precursor to the moment when Beijing starts to use its leverage in the economic relationship to put pressure on Australia for political ends.

Beijing has already signalled its intent on this front, with delays in unloading Australian coal shipments since the start of the year at Chinese ports. But being ready for possible sanctions is not the same as almost willing China to bring them on.

Morrison’s presence in Hanoi is in part a nod to burgeoning bilateral trade ties. Exports to Vietnam have grown seven-fold since 2005 and Australia now sells more there than to Germany, France or Canada. But even then, it is dwarfed by trade with China.

Morrison seems to grasp the need to sinuously walk both sides of the street. But if one article from a single backbencher like Andrew Hastie can land with such a thud, then the current approach may not hold.

Put another way, if there is a vacuum on China policy, the Prime Minister will have to fill it himself.

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