Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Why Australia is the canary in the regional coal mine

Why Australia is the canary in the regional coal mine

It has been an interesting few months in Australia-China relations. Following the Ausgrid decision, accusations of drug cheating at the Rio Olympics and the response to the arbitral tribunal decision, Australia has been on receiving end of considerable Chinese chagrin. Whether in the formal denunciations of the foreign ministry, the pointed invective of Global Times op-eds, or scatological posts from countless netizens, Australia has received both barrels. While it is too early to judge whether the bilateral relationship has been substantively challenged by these events, it would be wrong to see the reactions from the PRC as merely rhetorical flourishes.

As Gideon Rachman points out in his Financial Times column, recent events vividly demonstrate the increasingly difficult task Australia faces trying to reconcile its economic and security interests. In the past, compartmentalisation was the order of the day. When the economic relationship was focused on simple two way trade – Australia selling commodities and buying consumer goods – and China was content with the prevailing strategic order, the claim that Australia didn’t have to choose between Beijing and Washington seemed plausible, if a little naive. But as the economic relationship has become more complex, most obviously through Chinese investment in Australia, and as China becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the strategic status quo, hard choices have become the order of the day.

China is not only behaving more assertively, and contesting aspects of the regional order, it has also begun to serve notice that Australia will be judged for the decisions it may make, particularly in relation to the territorial disputes in maritime East Asia. Equally, the US has continued to press Australia to say and do more to support its vision for the region. The idea that Australia shouldn’t have to choose between its security ties to Washington and its economic interests with China is plainly a fantasy.

Like many in the region, Canberra had become used to the remarkable peace and stability established in the late 1970s, which appeared to be sustainable indefinitely. That period has come to an end and Australia’s dilemma is a function of the new geopolitics of contested Asia. The defining features of the region are no longer a stable and predictable regional order but contestation, not only about borders and rights, but also about the overarching structure and function of Asia’s international order.

Rachman thinks Australia might become a flashpoint in this contested region but here he gets the metaphor wrong. Australia’s beneficial geography means that it won’t be the place where tensions suddenly erupt into violent conflict. Rather, the pressure being put on Australia is significant because its circumstances are essentially the same as most of Washington’s regional partners: they have an asymmetric economic relationship with China. They are also much closer to China than Australia and will face more acute challenges sooner than Canberra. In many respects, how Australia responds to these pressures will give a sense of where others, like the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore and indeed even Japan, may go. And even though the language of the Global Times ‘paper cat’ op-ed had real menace, it is nothing in comparison to the much more worrying set of remarks targeted at Japan on 15 August, the day marking that country’s unconditional surrender in 1945. The threat was plain: ‘If Japan wants to make trouble with China on the latter's path to the Pacific, then it shouldn't make fuss about the fact that China will limit Japan's waterways in the South China Sea.’

Australia has discovered what it means to get on the wrong side of Chinese public relations; it has yet to discern what this might mean in actual policy terms. The path that Canberra chooses as it makes its way in contested Asia will tell us a great deal about just how heated the region will become.

La Trobe Asia and the Australian Studies Centre at East China Normal University will be hosting a panel discussion on Australia-China relations in Shanghai on 11 September.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Matt Elsberry

You may also be interested in