International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, The World

14 July 2022

Understanding that Chinese assertiveness is designed to flex muscle within China as well as externally can help Australian policymakers manage their relationship with the country, Daniel Fazio writes.

Maintaining a workable relationship with an assertive authoritarian China in the Asia Pacific is the most difficult ongoing foreign policy challenge now facing successive Australian governments and policymakers.

The recent meetings Defence Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong had with their respective Chinese counterparts, Wei Fenghe and Wang Yi, ended the two and a half year ‘freeze’ on Australia-China ministerial contact, and generated some optimism that the Australia-China relationship can soon be ‘normalised’.

However, subsequent statements from China and Australia are indicative of why the tensions in the relationship between the two countries are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

Australia’s new government will require a great deal of policy creativity and flexibility to navigate an extremely problematic and changing regional geo-strategic landscape. This is largely because of the multifaceted intentions behind China’s actions.

Consider the recent incident in which a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft conducted an unsafe interception of an Australian P-8A Poseidon surveillance flight in international airspace in the South China Sea region. Hours later, a second Australian aircraft returned to patrol the area and was uncontested.

Marles described how the Chinese fighter pulled alongside the Australian aircraft, releasing flares, then cut in front of it and released ‘chaff’, made of aluminium fragments to decoy incoming missiles, forcing it to make a dangerous evasive manoeuvre.

More on this: The truth behind China’s fishing ban in the South China Sea

This is the latest in a string of provocative acts by Chinese forces in this area. This confrontation was probably deliberate, as it is hard to imagine a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fighter would do this of its own volition without authority from higher up in the chain of command.

That said, while heavily intertwined, with Premier Xi Jinping also acting as Chair of the Central Military Committee, the government and the PLA are not monolithic institutions acting in unison in pursuit of singular geo-strategic and economic interests.

As in all states, the government, the ruling elite – in China’s case, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – and the PLA are separate, if very closely related, instruments with competing factions that are constantly positioning themselves to maximise their political power and policy influence.

A move like this interception could be serving multiple purposes, as both an external show of might and as an internal power play between competing factions within the government and the PLA.

In the same way, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s congratulatory message to the newly elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was not necessarily ‘empty’ just because it hasn’t born much fruit.

It may have been a genuine diplomatic olive branch aimed at resetting the relationship with the new Australian Government, put out in the hope that other parts of the Chinese state might get the message and consider easing the pressure on Australia. A lack of further progress indicates these forces within China probably never got on board with their colleagues’ optimism.

Irrespective of the genuine belligerence of many forces within China, it is clear Premier Xi Jinping does not want to fight a war with the United States and its allies. As such, the interception was likely a deliberate low-risk tactic designed to ‘flex muscle’ within and beyond China, rather than a genuine military operation.

Externally, this kind of act allows China to appear ‘strong’ with minimal risk of provoking a bigger incident or conflict. Internally, it allows the government to appear proactive, and may provide actors within the PLA leverage within the state.

But what does this mean for Australia?

More on this: A look back at Australia-China tensions in 2020

Ultimately, both parties understand that the United States will remain Australia’s primary geo-strategic ally for the foreseeable future and China will remain Australia’s primary economic partner. So, Australian policymakers will need to continue managing Australia’s relationship with the two countries in the context of their relations with one another.

Australia and China have stark political, societal, and ideological differences, and there is a massive economic and military power imbalance between them. Nevertheless, these differences and imbalances need not prevent the maintenance of a properly functioning diplomatic and economic relationship.

Continuing business and education contacts are indicative of the mutual interests Australia and China need to harness to cultivate understanding of one another and improve their relationship over time.

Despite provocations from within China like this incident, the new Australian Government may be able to create enough diplomatic flexibility to resume greater contact with China, which may result in some thawing in the relationship.

However, in all likelihood, the Australia-China relationship will not significantly improve while the country wholeheartedly pursues Xi Jinping’s ‘China dream’ mantra.

While it now appears remote, China’s leadership after Xi Jinping may be more amenable to working with their Australian counterparts in resetting the relationship by cultivating the two nations’ mutual interests despite their political differences.

For the time being, Australian and Chinese officials who want to restore normal relations between the two countries probably have no option other than to play a long diplomatic game until a convergence of circumstances enables the normalisation of this relationship.

China knows Australia will not compromise its political and societal values and freedoms by submitting to it directly. But China and Australia do not have to like each other to have a properly functioning diplomatic and economic relationship.

Recent aggressive posturing by China such as this incident only narrows the scope for diplomacy if responders assume that conflict between China and the United States and its allies is inevitable.

Of course, without a reduction in regional tensions, this danger of intended or unintended conflict will remain high, but Australian policymakers need to remind themselves that while vigilance is essential, conflict is not inevitable.

Diplomacy, built on an understanding of the complexity of China’s intentions, always offers the best hope of avoiding conflict and building and sustaining fruitful relationships.

If Australia can sustain such a long, careful, and constant diplomatic effort built on understanding, it may well avoid conflict with China and realise enormous regional dividends in the long term.

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