In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping presented the blueprint of his legacy defining initiative “One Belt One Road” or “The New Silk Project” to the world. It was an ambitious plan by China to invest trillions of dollars in infrastructure that would traverse Asia, the Pacific, Europe and Africa to assert the country’s dominance in trade and commerce. President Xi said he would need to sign up 60 countries in order to make it happen.
Fast forward four years later and 68 countries have signed up to take part in the initiative. One country which did not sign up was Australia.
The Australian government believed that coming on-board Xi’s landmark project presented strategic concerns to the country particularly on the issues of economic trade and immigration as border policies would have to be eased up.
But Australia has also been wary of the way China has been behaving lately; an apparent lack of regard for established rules and regulations among nations to ensure cooperation and to protect national sovereignty.
The actions of Labor Senator Sam Dastyari in appearing to do the bidding of the Chinese Government and the political activity and of the government aligned Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo have been recent high-profile examples of undue Chinese influence in Australian politics.
They prompted the Turnbull Government to recently announce laws to ban all foreign donations from political campaigning, make it illegal to undermine Australia’s national interest on behalf of a foreign power and create a register of foreign aligned lobbyists.
Australia’s growing concern on China’s ascension as the premiere superpower was also the subject of discussion in the Turnbull government’s white paper on foreign policy.
The white paper does not openly challenge or condemn China’s aggressive moves in the Pacific region. But it does send the message that no nation should condone bad behaviour even China. This was reiterated by Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop:
“What we are seeking to do is to balance against bad behaviour. The key is a rules-based order. We urge China to defend and strengthen that order. It’s the rules-based order that helped China’s rise, and it can help other countries to rise too.”
Australia was clearly referring to China’s decision to ignore the ruling from the international arbitration panel at The Hague which found China’s claim to most of the South China Sea baseless and contrary to international law.
The complaint was filed by the Philippines under the administration of then President, Benigno S. Aquino. The United Nations officially granted the Philippines full jurisdiction over the disputed islands in the Western Philippine Sea.
However under the administration of Rodrigo R. Duterte, the Philippines effectively set aside the ruling and essentially permitted China to build structures on the disputed islands.
Duterte is known to have associations with communist groups in the Philippines. In 2016, he secured a $24 Billion loan from China allegedly with instructions that he should not disclose terms to the government.
China issued a statement that it had turned the ruling into “waste paper”.
The white paper advocates two ways in which Australia could balance out the rising power of China.
First is that Australia has to build deeper relations with the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations or ASEAN.
Second, Australia should consider joining the quadrilateral group composed of the United States, Japan and India.
Would these be enough to counter-balance China’s influence in the Pacific and the rest of the world when one of its partners in the “Quad Squad”, the United States, secured $250 Billion worth of deals with China during U.S. President Donald Trump’s Asia trip last November?
Australia reasserting its national interest and not being afraid to stand up to China is certainly most welcome.