Australia’s call to arms against Chinese government intrusion into Western universities signals a momentous change of tack in its foreign-policy agenda. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has issued a blunt warning to university students affiliated with the Communist Party of China, urging them to respect freedom of speech in Australia.
Australia’s record period of uninterrupted economic growth is chiefly due to the coincidental globalization of China’s markets. Meanwhile, Australia’s foreign policy has never departed from US security patronage and global leadership.
In particular, Australia is a partner of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network along with the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand.
Even before Donald Trump’s presidency, the increasingly assertive postures of China’s major-power diplomacy has triggered an Australian debate on the long-term sustainability of the split security/trade system of alliances in the Asia-Pacific region.
Variously spread on both conservative and progressive circles, “choicers” and “dualists”, so to speak, seem to agree only on the underlying premise that China’s rising influence beyond the mere economic sphere is a matter of serious concern for Australia, and thus it requires a major revamp of the country’s foreign-policy agenda.
For the past few years, government policy has struggled to keep Australia’s relations with the US and China on parallel lines. However, Julie Bishop’s tough stance against Chinese interference in Australian universities appears to move away from the dualist strategy and toward the American choice.
The writing is on the wall, considering Australia’s quick support to President Trump’s new strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia, as well as the security partnership in the Philippines to fight Islamic State, a strategic shift that may bring Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte back into the US alliance fold.
In fact, Australia appears ready to sacrifice its multilateral trade agenda in Asia for the US-led protection of the liberal world order. But Australia should not necessarily pay an economic price for this choice, at least according to Trump’s binary and transactional worldview.
In fact, the US administration is close to triggering a trade war with China using as a legal pretext the findings of the White House’s Omnibus Report on Significant Trade Deficits, as well as the perceived nuclear crises with North Korea and Iran.
Australia is one of the few US allies with a bilateral trade agreement of Trump’s liking, that is with a significant US surplus. This makes Australia one of the best-placed economies to take advantage of US trade adjustments within emerging corporate value chains that bypass China’s sphere of influence.
With this economic logic in mind, an open cultural clash with China looks like Australia’s drill for crossing the Rubicon of the US-China struggle for geopolitical hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.