Government and governance, International relations | Australia, Asia, East Asia

27 April 2016

If Australia wants China to respect rules-based regional and global orders the country needs to learn to do so itself, Ramesh Thakur writes.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s recent official visit to China featured a packed schedule of meetings and speeches in Shanghai and Beijing including a combined total of four hours with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. Public comments and media reports mostly highlighted the exciting opportunities, with only muted references to challenges and potential points of friction.

The story of Australia’s constantly recalibrating bilateral relationship with China is liberally sprinkled with clichés and bumper sticker slogans: strategic dialogue, engage and hedge, fear and greed. The China–Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA), in effect from 20 December 2015, is intended to drive, deepen and broaden the bilateral economic engagement.

In parallel, Australia has been consolidating and deepening alliance ties with the US and actively exploring expanded defence ties with Japan, India and Vietnam. US ambassador John Berry correctly points to the ‘story of rock-solid bipartisan support, on both sides of the Pacific’ with regard to the Australia–US security alliance. For the past decade Australia’s policy is best described as regionally oriented but US-anchored in strategic, and China-anchored in economic moorings.

Turnbull’s visit met the expectations of the business community that believes the PM understands China, gets its importance and approaches relations from the vantage point of a former private sector entrepreneur. His appreciation of China’s strategic weight in the readjusting polycentric regional and global geopolitical order is certainly more nuanced than the infamously shirt-fronting former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Turnbull brings a cerebral approach to analysis and understanding and a civil and circumspect use of language in diplomatic discourse. His closest circle of foreign policy advisers is unusually Sinocentric.

Australian governments of both persuasions focus on economics as the main game but keep their eye firmly on the prize of long-term strategic interests. Turnbull’s gentle advice to Beijing is to ensure, by word and deeds, that its rise does not perturb the tranquillity, harmony and security of the region based on a continuing role for the US as the security anchor of Asia-Pacific. Eschewing the language of human rights that Beijing finds threatening and provocative, Turnbull deploys the softer language of the rule of law. This is reflected most strikingly in the 2016 Defence White Paper, which is notably assertive in mapping China’s territorial claims and the militarisation of its disputed islets in the South China Sea.

Turnbull has cautioned Beijing not to push the envelope on the maritime territorial disputes, observing that restraint is very much in China’s self-interest, and encouraging China to settle all outstanding disputes through the mechanisms provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), not through unilateral acts that others perceive as threatening. In other words, Turnbull is no more willing to accommodate China’s geopolitical ambitions in the region than any of his predecessors.

Unfortunately, when Canberra counsels Beijing to eschew coercion and embrace the rule of law, what the Chinese hear is not virtue speaking truth to power, but hypocrisy. The rule of law requires laws to be publicly promulgated, uniformly applied and independently adjudicated. The defence white paper uses the phrase ‘rules-based global order’ 48 times and contains another three references to a ‘rules-based regional order’. It is difficult to believe that Australian leaders and officials are ignorant of the fact that every time they mention it as a catchphrase for guiding international behaviour, their Chinese interlocutors will be reminded of Australia’s participation in the illegal aggression against Iraq in 2003. Then there is the sharp break between Australia’s obligations under the 1951 UN refugee convention and its treatment of asylum seekers.

More on this: Shaping the global order: the AIIB, South China Sea, and Australia's response | Marina Tsirbas

Australian analysts seem mostly blind to the structural similarities between the Chinese mindset of tributary relationships with smaller neighbours and our own neocolonial mindset of deference by the peripheral state to the imperial power, both of which ride roughshod over the rule of law. The relationship with East Timor might well be described in bumper sticker language as ‘bribe, bully and spy’. Under the Timor Sea Treaty signed in Dili on 20 May 2002 that came into effect on 2 April 2003, and the Treaty on the Maritime Arrangement in the Timor Sea signed in Sydney on 12 January 2006 and in effect since 23 February 2007, the two countries share oil and gas revenues in a joint development area.

Dili believes the vast majority of oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea, worth an estimated US$40 billion, lie in its territory as per the UNCLOS norms for determining sea borders. On this basis, Dili claims it has lost some US$5 billion in royalties and tax revenue since independence, enough to fund its entire budget for three years. Dili wants to begin fresh, good faith negotiations on a new border and submit the dispute to binding international determination if the talks fail.

Canberra rejects Dili’s claim and independent dispute resolution offer. Moreover, in March 2002 (just before East Timor’s independence), Australia withdrew from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice. This eliminated Dili’s option of resolving the territorial dispute through international adjudication – hardly the action of a nation committed to promoting the rule of law in international affairs.

Australia then installed electronic eavesdropping devices in East Timor’s cabinet room in 2004. When Dili launched legal proceedings against Canberra to recover foregone revenues and renegotiate a less unequal treaty, the Canberra offices of its lawyer, Bernard Collaery, were raided by police in 2013 and thousands of documents seized by Australia’s security intelligence service.

As the great Scottish poet Robbie Burns lamented, if only we had the gift ‘to see ourselves as others see us.’ If we want China to respect rules-based regional and global orders we had better learn fast to do so ourselves: no country has a God-given or self-proclaimed right to be the sole judge of both its own and everyone else’s compliance with rules, norms, and laws. As was true also of the nuclear deal with India, when others in a relationship perceive Australia’s actions as norm-violating rather than norm-reinforcing, the simultaneous pursuit of normative and transactional relations is mutually undermining. One has to be prioritised and the other quietly dropped.

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Thakur, R. (2016). A Turnbull in a China shopping spree - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: