Australia weighs shift in focus to China

Era defined by US and European leadership is ending, says former diplomat

SYDNEY • United States President Donald Trump's combative phone call with Australia's prime minister and his rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal have left many Australians wondering whether it is time to pay less attention to the US and engage more with China.

Mr Stephen FitzGerald, Australia's first ambassador to China, delivered a speech on Thursday that will only amplify that debate, arguing that the world has reached the end of an era defined by European and US leadership.

He called on Australia to make China its primary focus of diplomacy and economic policy, and to "implant in our education the study of China and Chinese".

"We are living in a Chinese world," he said. "But we don't have a relationship to match it."

Mr FitzGerald's comments - delivered as part of a popular lecture series known as the Gough Whitlam Oration, named after the prime minister who sent Mr FitzGerald to China in 1973 - reflect a view that has been gaining momentum in Australia for years, but especially so since Mr Trump's victory.

After decades of Australia sidling up to the US, sharing intelligence and fighting alongside the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, many Australians in the foreign policy and economic establishment are now questioning what some have come to describe as a complacent favouritism for US priorities in the region.

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We are living in a Chinese world. But we don't have a relationship to match it.

MR STEPHEN FITZGERALD, Australia's first ambassador to China.

Mr FitzGerald, an esteemed figure in Australia whose comments on China are always closely parsed, seemed especially eager to seize on Mr Trump's rise to argue for a shift in focus.

In his remarks at Western Sydney University, he said Mr Trump both threatened the old order and provided "a moment of opportunity" in which Australia could become more independent of Washington and develop the kinds of ties to Beijing that would allow Australia to moderate China's behaviour in the region.

He did not hold back on what he hoped Australia could affect - he explicitly criticised China's anti-democratic tendencies, calling out the way it seeks to influence Australian politics through investments and campaign contributions.

He also condemned China's efforts to control information and opinions within Australia's Chinese community. Noting that the Chinese government or its affiliates "now have near-monopoly control of Australia's Chinese-language print and broadcast media", he made clear that China's controlling tendencies were a challenge to Australia's democratic values. Still, he maintained that there was only one way to manage the problem: by being "close enough to have voice and influence in Beijing".

Experts in Chinese-Australian relations, who largely agreed with Mr FitzGerald's approach, said this element of his argument would inevitably raise eyebrows.

"These remarks are one of the strongest articulations yet of one strand in the Australian debate - that we should accept a Chinese-led order in Asia," said Professor Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University. "But there are also firm views within Australia to the contrary. How does Australia protect its interests and its sovereignty against Chinese power and influence?"

Mr Alan Dupont, a China analyst and fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, said Mr FitzGerald's speech, while well reasoned, reflected the views of a lifelong Sinophile who had overestimated Australia's ability to affect China's behaviour. "The bottom line is, only large countries influence other large countries," he said. "I think he's overestimating the potential to influence China."

He said Mr FitzGerald did not take into account China's possible fragility or the degree to which Australians and Americans shared common values of openness and democracy, forming the basis of an alliance that went beyond geopolitics.

"Whatever you may think of Donald Trump's values or lack of them, Donald Trump is not the United States of America," Mr Dupont said. "As a country and a society, do we have more in common with US? I think the answer is yes."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2017, with the headline 'Australia weighs shift in focus to China'. Print Edition | Subscribe