Australia unsure how ‘assertive’ China will act, Penny Wong says
Shadow foreign affairs minister says Australia needs to ‘understand China, its motives and its mindsets’
Monday 16 October 2017 04.33 BSTLast modified on Monday 16 October 2017 05.29 BST
Australia does not “fully know” how an increasingly assertive China will use its power, Penny Wong has warned in a speech pledging to safeguard Australia’s sovereignty while accepting China as a global player.
The defence and security communities must be “on the lookout for threats” as government and business expand the trade relationship with China, the Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman told the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Canberra on Monday.
But Wong warned that discussion about China was “vulnerable … to infection with undertones of race and alienation”, citing One Nation’s “dystopian rhetoric” as an example.
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Wong said Australia must “understand China, its motives and its mindsets” because “we don’t yet know how its pursuit of a more ambitious agenda will play out globally” nor “how China intends to condition its use of power”.
“China is becoming more assertive, and more inclined not only to demand a place at the table, but also a say in which table and what design,” she said.
Wong said that Australia should work with China “to encourage it to play the positive role it is capable of in supporting and furthering regional stability and security”.
Wong said Australia must afford China the “priority it merits”, including by not remaining “defiantly monolingual”, instead committing to ramp up study of Mandarin.
Wong encouraged greater integration of economic and security policy, noting that China’s belt and road initiative was an example where assessment purely on strategic implications could see Australia “missing out on its potential” but a “purely economic approach ignores our own strategic interests”.
She announced that, in addition to engagement at the head of government and ministerial level, Labor would “considerably expand” engagement between the senior public service, not just in defence and foreign affairs but “in particular the Treasury” and other departments with ongoing business in China.
She noted proposals for an independent Australia-China commission, and said Labor would give “serious consideration” to the idea.
Wong said that at times China’s strategic objectives and its “long-term vision of its own place in the world” conflicted with the regional rules-based order, citing the South China Sea as an example.
In 2016 the permanent court of arbitration in The Hague ruled that China had no historical title over the South China Sea.
The Turnbull government has stressed the need for China to respect the binding ruling and the sovereignty of smaller nations, contributing to warnings from Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, that Australia must not “take sides” as occurred in the Cold War.
Earlier, in her speech at the same event, the foreign minister rejected the view Australia was “taking sides” by insisting China and the Philippines respect the international court’s decision. Julie Bishop warned the international rules-based order was “under strain, even fraying” as some nations sought to bend or break the rules for “short-term gain”.
She cited North Korea’s defiance of United Nations security council resolutions as the “most egregious” example.
Bishop said while the US would be the “only global superpower into the foreseeable future”, in the next 10 years – the time covered by the forthcoming foreign affairs white paper – Asia’s combined military spending would match the US’s.
In that time, she warned Australia could fall out of the world’s top 20 economies; it is projected to be overtaken by Indonesia, Pakistan and Thailand.
Bishop noted many territorial disagreements involved Asia’s great powers, citing China’s maritime disputes with five south-east Asian states including the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, the dispute over the Senkaku Islands (also known as the Diaoyu Islands) with Japan and a land border dispute with India.
Wong said the world was in a period of disruption characterised by “unpredictable political events, re-emergent nationalism, the increasing challenge to democracy as the most effective form of political participation, worsening economic inequality” and a challenge to the international rules-based order.
China was part of that disruption and through economic growth had achieved “a standing as a world power that would once have only been possible through military power”, she said.
Wong argued Australia’s long-term relationship with China would be developed not “at the expense of our relationship with the US” but rather to a “very significant extent” because of that relationship.
She said the Anzus treaty between Australia and the US not only underpinned Australia’s security but “is a key contributor to the peace, stability and security of our region”, rejecting both the view of US regional treaties as an attempt to “contain” China and any suggestion China needed to be contained.
“What Australia, China and the US are looking for is a convergence, as far as is practicable, of our individual national interests in Asia, locating those interests within a rules-based order.”
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Wong argued that China’s long-term interests were enhanced by stability, and that Australia could navigate a path guided by its own national interests rather than treating China and the US as competitors engaged in a “binary relationship