Foreign policy beyond asylum seeker silliness

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Cog marked with Chinese flag interlocks with cog marked with USA flagBack in April a boat of 66 Sri Lankan asylum seekers slipped into Geraldton harbor. By the afternoon half the town had assembled for a gander. One woman's indignation was tempered with relief: What if they'd been terrorists?

Now in reality, no credible threat would attempt to invade a Pacific middle power with an annual defence budget in excess of $20 billion and strategic ties to the US via a boat that was remarkable only for staying afloat. But the woman's fears hadn't come from nowhere. Politicians avoid the term 'invasion' to frame the issue of asylum seekers, but only just. We are regularly told we have 'lost control of our borders', that our sovereignty is imperilled and, by way of debacles such as the Sayed Abdellatif affair, that asylum seekers are wolves in sheep's clothing.

The irony is that, quite apart from campaign slogans and the issue of asylum seekers, Australia may be entering a geo-political reality where serious questions will be asked of our national sovereignty.

The imperial mandarins learnt the hard way that sovereignty is not inviolable. For centuries China boasted the world's largest economy and superpower status. The Treaty of Nanjing of 1842, which concluded the First Opium War, wounded this sense of preeminence. Having missed out on the industrial revolution, the Qing dynasty was little match for the industrial war machines of Europe. The treaty excised large chunks of China to the foreign powers and was the first of many significant defeats China faced over the next hundred years.

China specialists Orville Schell and John Delury argue that the treaty has become year dot for modern China. In an exhibition in Nanjing city commemorating this capitulation, a panel records: 'Those unequal treaties were like fettering ropes of humiliation that made China lose control of her political and military affairs ... [It] has become a symbol of the commencement of China's modern history.'  Why would the Chinese Communist Party want to commence its modern history here?

The exhibit concludes: 'It is hard to look back upon this humiliating history ... But the abolishment of the unequal treaties has shown the Chinese people's unwavering spirit of struggle for independence and self-strengthening. To feel shame is to approach courage.' To an outsider that might all sound simplistic, even glib. Isn't that the plot of Karate Kid? — an innocent suffers a crushing humiliation, the adversity surfaces a hitherto unknown strength of character, and redemption is achieved by manning up to the bullies of the world.

However the repercussions of this 'manning up' is anything but glib. China is converting its economic power into military power. It is increasingly assertive in the tinderboxes of the East and South China Seas, developing weapons to sink US warships, leveraging its industries for strategic advantage, getting better at shooting down satellites, hacking sensitive national secrets and generally behaving like an emerging superpower.

And America has started to push back, erecting a ring of a new air force bases across South East Asia and the Pacific, increasing regional military cooperation and generally behaving like an entrenched superpower.

And these immediate strategic maneuvers are taking place against sweeping economic changes that may see China as the world's largest economy in a few years, India as the second richest in a decade or two, and maybe even Indonesia in fourth place by mid century. Not for nothing is this called the Asian century.

Which brings us back to Australia today. The official line from both major parties is that Australia can continue to make money from China and get security from the US.

Granted, the 'Australia in the Asian Century' white paper concedes that the US-Sino relationship 'will inevitably have a competitive element'. The overall tone though remains upbeat. However, Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at ANU, identifies a crippling tension that undercuts the white paper:

Asia is being fundamentally transformed by the second biggest event in human history [the rebalancing of global wealth and power to its shores], and all we need to do is maintain our current policy settings, hire a few more diplomats and teach a few more languages. No hard choices or uncomfortable reforms — let alone serious investments — required.

Tensions mar Australia's current policy planning. How else do you describe a policy blueprint like the white paper that says 'this is not a world in which anything like a containment policy can work or be in our national interests' while at the same time we welcome US warplanes to Darwin next year?

To be fair, we might be lucky. Malcolm Turnbull and Henry Kissinger might be right, and this swirling mass of egos, missiles, grievances and interests that make up US-Sino relations might 'evolve into a new order, without either side having to make concessions to the other'.

But the risks are real and growing. And it's in this context that the framing of asylum seekers as a threat to our sovereignty is exposed as just plain silly. A war between China and the US would be a disaster to our national interests. A trickle of desperate people on barely sea worthy vessel is not.

Evan Ellis headshotEvan Ellis is a freelance journalist currently completing his Masters in International Studies with a China major. He won the 2012 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers for his essay 'Catholic and Aboriginal listening revolutions'.

China and US cogs image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Evan Ellis, Sayed Abdellatif, asylum seekers, China, America



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Existing comments

What's the chance that China, becoming desperately short of water, will dam the rivers that run from Tibet into India, and so start the most costly (in lives) war ever?
Gavan | 16 August 2013


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