Commentary / World

Australia's China policy adrift

by Gregory Clark

Animals play quite a role in Australia’s up-and-down relations with China. A generation ago an Australian foreign minister explaining why Canberra continued to oppose relations with Beijing said that “before you pat a dog you have to make sure it will not bite you.”

Now more than 40 years later Beijing’s Global Times tabloid has hit back. Canberra with its criticisms of China’s advance into the South China Sea “is not even a ‘paper tiger,’ it’s only a ‘paper cat’ at best.” It also has an inglorious history of aborigine suppression and so on.

The trigger for this surprising torrent of abuse against a one-time “strategic partner” is the way Canberra has joined with Japan and the United States in opposing China’s efforts to convert seven isolated shoals and reefs in the South China Sea into islands with harbors, airfields and even tourist facilities.

The three nations have supported a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague favoring an appeal by Manila against those Chinese island reclamation efforts in the Spratly chain close to the Philippines. The U.S. seeks support from both Canberra and Tokyo for its aggressive freedom of navigation (FON) activities challenging China’s claims not just to ownership but also to 12 nautical mile territorial waters around those artificial islands.

Some hypocrisy is involved in this criticism of Beijing’s behavior. Japan used to claim ownership of both the Paracel and Spratly island chains in the South China Sea. In its 1952 peace treaty with Taiwan it said it abandoned that claim, presumably in favor of China.

Japan now insists that neither “China” — either in Beijing or Taipei — has ownership. It criticizes Beijing’s claim to a 200 nm exclusive economic zone around reclaimed “islands.” Yet it imposes, forcefully, an identical zone around its claimed Okinotorishima “island” in the distant Pacific, which consists of two bed-size rocks now embedded in concrete and serve as a precedent for Beijing’s reclamation activities. It even tries to use the “island” to make a continental shelf claim equal to an area the size of Japan itself.

Canberra supports the PCA dismissal of island claims by both Beijing and Taipei based on prior discovery and usage. Yet on the basis of alleged prior discovery Canberra insists on ownership of Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands far from Australia and close to Indonesia. The U.S. record in cooperating with the United Kingdom to expel the native population of the small Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia to create a major military base far exceeds the illegality of anything Beijing or Taipei may be doing in the South China Sea.

Hypocrisy aside, the Canberra-Beijing spat is extraordinary. In the immediate postwar years the hatred that Canberra had reserved for Japan was quickly transferred to China; Yellow Peril fears had long dominated Australia’s attitudes to its northern neighbors. Its 1965 decision not just to intervene in the Vietnam War but to even insist that the U.S. continue its intervention was based on a visceral fear that North Vietnam was a puppet of China and that Beijing was using it to spearhead an expansion into Asia in the direction of Australia. (In 1964 I was sole witness to a bizarre attempt in the Kremlin by Canberra’s foreign minister, Paul Hasluck, the author of the Beijing dog analogy, to persuade Moscow to join the U.S. in Vietnam to stop that feared Chinese invasion.)

In 1971, Canberra’s fear of China was so great that it became the only major Western nation resolutely to oppose Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s desperate efforts to open China to the West by inviting ping-pong teams at championships in Japan to visit China.

But then things changed dramatically. Based in Tokyo at the time I persuaded the Australian ping-pong team to make that banned visit to Beijing. The historic visit to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger came soon after. The subsequent publicity in Australia, including a visit to China by opposition leader Gough Whitlam, led to the 1972 change of government in Canberra and a seeming complete reversal of the previous hostility to Beijing. China was not just the flavor of the month. It was to be the catalyst for 40 years of close trade, cultural and even diplomatic ties between the two countries. All this seemed to come to a climax when Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat who like myself had been trained in Chinese, became prime minister and began to advocate a midway policy between China and the U.S. in the Pacific. In April 2013 the two governments announced they had a strategic partnership.

But that did not last very long. Wikileaks has revealed how close U.S. “assets” within the right wing of Rudd’s Labor Party conspired to have Rudd pushed out in 2010. Since then Canberra has moved increasingly in a pro-U.S. direction, to the point of being willing to risk important trade ties with China in order to confront Beijing over the South China Sea islands issue, with the allegedly left-wing Labor Party taking an even more belligerent, pro-FON stance than the ruling center-right coalition. Those long-sublimated Yellow Peril fears have resurfaced, with a vengeance. We now find that the 40 years of claimed friendship with China never went much below superficial cultural exchanges and a boom in acquisitive Chinese investment. The instinctive urge to bond closely with the U.S. is as dominant as ever.

Even so, the vitriol of the Global Times editorial is surprising. The paper is owned by the Communist Party organ, People’s Daily, and in the past treated Australia with kid gloves. But in line with Beijing’s recent foreign policy shifts it has turned increasingly nationalistic.

Reflecting its seeming contempt for Canberra’s past shallow and shifting attitudes to China it does not even bestow the “paper tiger” label imposed on the U.S. during past periods of hostility. We Australians are mere paper cats. I checked and discovered that the domestic cat belongs to a subfamily in the Felidae animal family. The tigers in this family can roar but cannot purr. The domestic cat, together with the puma and cheetah, can purr but cannot roar.

Based in Tokyo, Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat. After resigning from the diplomatic service he published in 1968 a criticism of Australian foreign policy titled “In Fear of China.” A Japanese translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net .