Week of 14 to 20 June 2021

This edition is a little/lot late. I’ll be back to more timely programming next week.

The dividends of diplomacy?

Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan speaking at an oil and gas industry conference on 15 June:

“[H]ow is it in our interests to be reckless with trading relationships that fund and drive our prosperity and our nation forward?”

“This isn’t about kowtowing to other countries … it’s about having a bit of tact and a bit of savvy – it’s what was commonly known as diplomacy.”

“It’s not beyond us as Australians to do that in our national interest. There needs to be a national reset in that relationship.”

Quick take:

Premier McGowan’s intervention once again raises that critical and reliably controversial question of whether Australia should shift its diplomatic messaging in a bid to reverse (or at least stall) the deep downturn in relations with China.

Typically, advocates of such an approach suggest maintaining the course on substantive China policy, including criticism of China’s human rights record, the Australian Defence Force presence in the South China Sea, and efforts to combat Beijing’s interference in Australian politics, etc. But they argue this policy continuity should be combined with smoother diplomatic messaging, such as quietening the drums of war and not calling for transparency from China by indirectly referencing a US-led and Australian-supported invasion of a sovereign state (which, to boot, was at best legally and strategically dubious).

As the above two examples make plain, the call for such a shift in diplomatic messaging is not directed at Australian public servants in Canberra or diplomats in China. These misgivings about the government’s China diplomacy relate exclusively to how the Prime Minister and his ministers speak and message Beijing.

The response in many quarters to these kinds of arguments is a combination of two claims:

  1. It won’t work. No amount of diplomatic finessing will compensate for the deep and steadily deepening structural tensions in the bilateral relationship. Clearly, many of China’s grievances are with substantive Australia policy decisions, so no amount of diplomatic gloss is likely to move the dial in Beijing.
  2. Even if recalibrating diplomatic messaging might work, we still shouldn’t do it. Simply modifying diplomacy (albeit without changing substantive policy) would be too much of a concession to Beijing. The logic being: China has shown itself to be such a malign actor that even using softer or smarter words to deliver the same messages would be conceding too much ground.

In light of all the political/diplomatic/strategic/economic/etc., bad blood between Beijing and Canberra, argument 1. may well be correct. But the cost Vs benefit equation makes me think that the possibility or even probability of failure isn’t on its own a strong reason to not explore such diplomatic tactics. If diplomatic manoeuvres fail, the costs for the Australian national interest are likely to be minimal. (Would we suffer a small amount of reputational damage? Perhaps.) But if successful, the benefits could be quite literally worth billions. These benefits could even potentially extend to reopening communication channels for the Australian Foreign Minister to directly lobby Beijing on behalf of Australians detain in China, among many other fundamental priorities.

Given the systematic and brutal nature of human rights abuses against Uighurs and many other communities in China, the logic of argument 2. is understandable. But argument 2. also misses a crucial point. Diplomatic finessing wouldn’t be in service of acquiescing to Beijing. Quite the opposite. Shrewd diplomacy that might be softer and more tactical at times would be designed precisely to allow Australia to more powerfully press its interests with China, including on crucial human rights issues and core security concerns. Far from a concession to Beijing, such diplomatic finessing would be designed to allow Australia to more effectively achieve its goals.

Clearly, there’s a big lacuna in all of this: What precisely should Canberra say differently? (And this scope for different diplomatic messaging is especially limited given that language on human rights really is substantive policy and so should not be up for negotiation.) Critics of the argument that diplomacy alone can deliver a substantial improvement in bilateral relations are entirely right to demand specifics. To that end, I’m working on a little policy paper dealing with some possible answers to this question of what Australia could usefully say differently. But for the moment, I’ll remain unhelpfully coy.

The national interest

Western Australian Coalition MP Andrew Hastie responding to Premier McGowan:

“He should not confuse his recent electoral success with a mandate to run his own foreign policy that is weak, gutless and contrary to Australia’s national interest.”

Quick take:

It’s striking that both Hastie’s and McGowan’s forceful interventions make strong appeals to the national interest. So, at the very least, they agree that China policy strikes at the core of the most fundamental questions of what would best serve the country. In that, it’s hard to disagree with either of them.

But this consensus papers over another deep and often divisive political, policy, and even moral question: How to parse the national interest? As Senator Penny Wong observed in 2017: the use of the term ‘the national interest’ is sometimes “designed to end the debate.” In other words, references to a particular China policy proposal being against the national interest are an invitation to dismiss this proposal out of hand and not analyse its particulars. But as the McGowan-Hastie exchange makes plain, the stakes for China policy are far too high for any side of the debate to quickly defer to the other side’s view of how to pursue the national interest vis-à-vis China.

So where does that leave us? I’ll offer just one tentative suggestion. Rather than duking it out in the notoriously fractious arena of the granular detail of China policy, there might be a case for taking the debate up a level of abstraction. Something along the lines of the first-order question: What does the Australian national interest entail vis-à-vis China? China policy impacts profoundly all three traditional prongs of the national interest—our prosperity, security, and values. So, having a much clearer, and ideally broadly shared, sense of how to balance and simultaneously pursue these often-competing aspects of the national interest would be an immensely useful baseline for any conversation about China policy.

Unsurprisingly, developing a shared baseline understanding of how to balance the competing elements of the national interest would be hard. (I’m not so pessimistic as to say quixotic, but one could say that.) But such a challenging task strikes me as increasingly urgent as great power competition, economic statecraft, securitisation, and related forces compound tensions between our security, economic, and values priorities. These elements of the national interest are now often in direct competition and there’s a China policy dimension to so many of these acute points of tension:

  • economic openness Vs national security when assessing Chinese investment approvals;
  • liberal democratic values Vs trade relations when considering proposed targeted sanctions against Chinese officials involved in severe human rights abuses;
  • social cohesion Vs national security in designing anti-foreign interference laws and policies; and the list goes on.

Calls for another “national conversation” are enough to elicit cynical groans. But does Australia need a bigger debate on the first-order questions of what our national interest is and how to pursue it in light of the increasingly stark strategic dilemmas we face in our relationship with China?

Everything is politics

Coalition Senator James Paterson (Victoria) weighing in on the McGowan controversy:

Quick take:

The conventional wisdom has long been that foreign policy doesn’t lend itself to partisan politicking. The fraught state of Australia-China relations seems to be testing that orthodoxy. We might not yet be at the stage where foreign policy is an election-winning issue. But I’d (cautiously) wager that we’ll see foreign policy play a larger role in party politics in coming electoral cycles.

And I tend to think that’s a generally good thing too. Beijing’s growing means and expansive goals combined with Washington’s deepening embrace of strategic competition creates a long list of immensely consequential strategic choices for Australia. It would be, on balance, positive for Australian democracy if our major political parties debated at least somewhat different visions of Australia’s path forward.

As always, thank you for reading and please excuse any errors (typographical or otherwise). Any and all objections, criticisms, and corrections are very much appreciated.