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China, aid and the gift of interdependence



In recent months comment on international politics has been about taking sides, making stands and falling into line. National self-interest is taken to imply aligning yourself with or against the United States or China on trade, Great Britain or Russia on poisoning, and Syria, the United States, Iran, Israel, Russia or any combination of them in Syria.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (left) and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull meet in Canberra during Li’s five-day visit last month to boost economic ties between the two countries. Photo: EPAAgainst such strident calls to be counted or counted out, two isolated and apparently unrelated pieces of speculation in the Australian press passed with little response. The ritual leaks designed to test public opinion before the next federal budget included the prediction of a further cut to overseas aid. A little later it was also asserted, and quickly denied, that China wanted to establish a military base in Vanuatu. The news briefly stoked already anxious speculation about China's threat to Australia.

The conjunction of these two items invites us to ask whether the prevailing 'realistic' judgment that in its relationships with other nations Australia should always put Australia first, and look only to its national self-interest, is actually realistic. Might cuts in foreign aid on the grounds that they have no strategic importance, for example, have unforeseen consequences in international relationships that will disadvantage Australia? Vanuatu's recent relationship with China does not provide evidence for this conclusion, but adds weight to the question.

The proportionate decline in overseas aid under the Coalition government has been noticeable since the traditionally Liberal governments of Robert Menzies and Malcolm Fraser. The decline has been precipitous under the current Coalition Government, amounting to one third in real terms since the election of the Abbot government in 2012.

The principle that governed the awarding of foreign aid has been to give priority to Australian national interests rather than to the needs of the recipients. Accordingly aid to Africa, Asia and the Middle East was savagely cut.

The Pacific region, however, was spared these cuts because the Australian government recognised that Australia has a strategic interest in the region, particularly at a time when Chinese military and economic power and influence have grown. Australia is the biggest contributor of aid funding to the region and wishes to be the partner of choice to the nations of the region.

At first sight the willingness of Vanuatu to accept a Chinese offer to build and perhaps to expand a wharf on the Island of Espiritu Santo argues that giving aid in order to influence the recipient nation's policy is ineffective. Despite Australia's aid policy Vanuatu has cheerfully acceded to Chinese initiatives that could harm Australia's interests.


"The play of self-interest leads inevitably to checkmate in which the strongest will win."


On the other hand, the Vanuatu decision also tends to disprove the theory that a nakedly self-interested and manipulative aid policy would deter the targeted nation from accepting fresh offers. China typically offers only loans that need to be repaid, often in ways that advance Chinese interests in the host nation. Yet Vanuatu is clearly open to more business.

It appears then that aid given self-interestedly does not guarantee favourable relationships with the recipient nation, but neither does it hinder them. It simply frees the target nation to act independently in its own perceived self-interest. If self-interest controls international relationships, that is what you would expect. Recipient nations will be delighted to see a market in aid established and will accept the best offer. In this case China surely will have the bigger pockets.

That, however, leaves open the question of what a self-interested foreign policy does for the donor nation and, indeed, what it does to the donor nation. That question necessarily takes us beyond quantifiable answers to the quality and nature of international relations. These relations are part of an ecology of relationships that goes beyond relationships between states to relationships between states and individuals, states and institutions, between people, between people and institutions and between people and their environment. These myriad relationships shape society, and with it nations and the way in which they relate to one another. At all levels of relationship people are interdependent.

If at any level it becomes accepted that relationships are determined by self-interest, the relationships will be stunted, so ensuring that even self-interest will be ill-served, as seems the case of Australian aid to Vanuatu. When the reality of interdependence is not acknowledged, the possibilities of benefit even to self-interested individuals, societies and nations are limited.

To accept that self-interest controls relationships, too, removes ethical considerations from them. Australia cannot appeal to the virtues of democracy, of cultural affinity or of history in order to commend itself as a preferred party. All falls back on Vanuatu' judgment of what is in its self-interest.

The play of self-interest leads inevitably to checkmate in which the strongest will win. The play of interdependence leads to an exchange of gifts in which the flourishing of each party benefits the other. It also encourages the recognition of a moral order which governs international relations. There is more to realism than self-interest.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (left) and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull meet in Canberra during Li’s five-day visit last month to boost economic ties between the two countries (EPA)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, China, Vanuatu, aid



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Existing comments

Another excellent article from Fr Andrew, reminding us that ethics in our interdependent world is not only a valid basis for action, but is essential in any long-term approach to international relations. Whether it is Trump's 'America First!' or the current Coalition government's 'Australia First!', such myopic policy can only end in a fox-hole competitiveness between nations. Australia, as well as America, can well afford to be among the leaders in providing assistance to nations who are in far less advantageous trading positions.

Ian Fraser | 19 April 2018  

"At all levels of relationship people are interdependent." and at all levels people are related. Opening our hearts to others does our hearts good. Hardening our hearts to others is scarcely good economics, let alone what heart disease does to the heart of the nation. And would help to our first nation people be aid or compensatory justice?

Michael D. Breen | 20 April 2018  

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