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China reality mugs Keating’s Asia vision

By David Alexander - posted Friday, 15 January 2021

Thirty years of Australian foreign policy thinking was turned on its head on November 17 last year.

The benign view of the rise of authoritarian China, a view underpinning three decades of policymakers pressing for ever greater integration with that country, suffered a mortal blow when the superpower handed over its list of 14 grievances against Australia.

Paul Keating's original insight was laudable, but he has swung to an alarmingly naïve embrace of an authoritarian hegemon. Mike Bowers


Events had been challenging the benign view over recent years – China claiming and militarising territories belonging to south-east Asian neighbours, the extinguishment of democracy in Hong Kong, revelations of political interference in Australia, trade sanctions – but Sino-optimists had always believed that these were ultimately issues that shouldn't deter Australia from the closer enmeshment project.

This was different. What the 14 grievances made clear was that authoritarian China expected Australia to fundamentally subsume its rights as an independent liberal democratic country and bow to Chinese government interests. This was the Chinese government brazenly demanding that the Australian government stop protecting itself from Chinese political interference and from Chinese ownership of critical infrastructure, and stop political leaders complaining about China full stop.

The rest of the diplomatic world is transfixed by this phenomenon – there is a sense that Australia is the canary in the coal mine, a glimpse of what the future holds as China starts to flex its economic muscle. Will this Western country hold out, or will it start to resemble its more compliant Asian neighbours?

China's hope is to ultimately break Australia away from Anglosphere allies, ANZUS, and Five Eyes, and have it behave how it sees most Asian neighbours – more deferential to Beijing, more accommodating of authoritarianism, and less concerned with the human rights, the rule of law and free speech. What it really wants is a client state.

China already treats other Asian countries as lesser entities that simply have to accept it as their boss. In 2010, China's then foreign minister harangued the assembled foreign ministers of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) with an admonition that ''China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact''.

The combination of economic integration and bullying of south-east Asian countries may already be swinging them behind China. A survey of business, media and civil society leaders in south-east Asia, taken before COVID-19, asked them who they would choose if ASEAN was forced to align itself with either the US or China: a majority in seven of the 10 ASEAN member countries chose China.


The collapse of the benign China assumption has been difficult for Australian policymaking elites to process. Our integration with China was supposed to provide us with security, and now it's being used against us. The author and prime promoter of Australian integration with Asia, Paul Keating, has become increasingly intemperate as the cracks in his vision have grown wider.

Keating's praise for the Chinese government has become extreme in recent years (''the best government in the world in the last 30 years. Full stop''). He belittles the concern that Australians have about authoritarianism (''Don't get too hung up on the words democrat and democracy''). He has insulted our security agency chiefs for combating Chinese interference in our political system (''the nutters are in charge'') and called for the Australian government to ''clean them out''. He has said Australia should ''cut the tag'' with United States' foreign policy and seek a better relationship with China.

The bullying of Australia by the regional superpower raises wider questions about the Keating drive to integrate and redefine ourselves as an Asian country. Are we being drawn – or pushed – into a Sinosphere of authoritarian influence that is fundamentally inimical to our values and interests? Why would we want to be an Asian country if that means being forced by the regional hegemon to forgo our liberal democratic nature?

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This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.

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About the Author

David Alexander is managing director of Barton Deakin Government Relations.

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