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Malcolm in the Middle Kingdom

EPA/Mast Irham

Before European imperialism fatally undermined China’s own dynastic system, it was customary for China’s neighbours to acknowledge its dominance by sending tribute missions to the imperial court. While Malcolm Turnbull is not going to have to kowtow before Xi Jinping, the 1000-strong Australian delegation’s presence in China is yet another sign of the Middle Kingdom’s renewed importance in regional affairs.

The inaugural visit to China as leader and the establishment of a good relationship with their counterparts has become a rite of passage for Australian leaders. Being knowledgeable about China is no guarantee of success, however, as Kevin Rudd’s rocky relationship demonstrated. John Howard’s business-like “pragmatism”, by contrast, was appreciated by China’s leaders who didn’t welcome Rudd’s impertinent lectures on human rights.

Knowing one’s place in the hierarchy is an idea the Chinese take very seriously. It helps to explain the disdain with which Chinese policymakers have treated complaints from the likes of the Philippines and Vietnam about China’s increasingly belligerent approach to the territorial disputes that threaten to spill over into outright conflict in the South China Sea.

Turnbull will no doubt feel compelled to ventilate Australian concerns about China’s expansionist policies, too, but his hosts are unlikely to take the slightest notice. If they have not been swayed by the protestations of some of their more immediate neighbours or the US’ more consequential complaints, they are not going to change course as a consequence of anything Australia’s prime minister might say.

One assumes that our diplomats recognise this reality, but feel obliged to go through the motions, anyway. China is not the only country Australia needs to have a good relationship with, after all. The strategic alliance with the US obliges Australia to adopt an approach to security issues that is in keeping with American geopolitical goals as well as our own.

Whatever the merits of a more robust response to China’s efforts to change the facts on the ground in the South China Sea may be, as far as many policymakers and scholars in China are concerned, Australia is a relatively insignificant actor.

My colleague Jinghan Zeng and I recently analysed how Australia is seen in debates about strategy and foreign policy within China. The rather sobering reality for policymakers in this country is that Australia is generally thought of as an entirely predictable extension of US foreign policy and consequently of comparatively little interest or significance.

Any capacity Australia might have to act as an independent swing state is effectively nullified by the non-negotiable commitment to the alliance.

The idea that so-called middle powers might play a significant role in regional affairs is also regarded with a mixture of incredulity and indifference in China. The US remains the principal – even the obsessive – focus of strategic and foreign policy attention. Australia is seen as a relatively unimportant member of the supporting cast.

Does this mean that Australia should abandon efforts to influence China’s behaviour? Not necessarily, but it does mean that we need to be realistic about what can be achieved and about the very limited extent of our influence. Australia’s limited strategic significance would ensure this was the case under any circumstances; it is doubly so when we are seen as a compliant extension of US policy.

If Australia can add little of significance as a junior alliance partner with limited capacity for independent action, are there alternative ways of making a constructive contribution? Perhaps. But for all the talk of creative middle-power diplomacy, it’s generally conspicuous by its absence.

And yet, Australia might usefully find common cause with the likes of South Korea, Japan, India and Indonesia in developing new approaches to regional security problems.

Importantly, any coalition of middle powers could not be as easily dismissed by China as the usual suspects ganging up to do America’s bidding in an effort to contain its future development. In the absence of a not-unimaginable economic or political crisis in China, its rise will continue and so will the transformation of regional geopolitics. The only question is how other regional powers respond to this challenge.

Hugh White is surely correct to point out that adjusting to the reality of China’s continuing rise and regional importance is the only option. It is neither possible nor desirable to contain China, especially as the economic futures of many of its neighbours – including Australia – are so dependent on its continuing economic development.

In such circumstances, the current mission’s preoccupation with trade looks understandable and appropriate. Managing the conflicting economic and strategic imperatives and selling them to diverse audiences at home and abroad will take some finessing, though.

But as the Chinese will no doubt discover, whatever else Turnbull may be, he’s articulate, engaging and perhaps even ingratiating. Not bad qualities for the leader of a minor power.

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