Australia shouldn't pay price for 'pivot'
2016-04-21 10:57

Which came first: (a) the US "pivot to Asia" (AKA "encircling China") or (b) China increasing its forward defence stance in the South China Sea by building artificial islands?

And while we're at it, which came first: (a) US encouragement of Japanese rearmament and resurgent Japanese nationalism or (b) the stirring of the wisely dormant Senkaku/Daioyu Islands dispute?

The pivot declaration still amounted to a shot across China's bows. It's no wonder China responded.

The answer to both questions is (a) but Australia, ever the obedient servant of US foreign policy, right or wrong, nonetheless chooses to lecture Beijing on keeping peace in the Pacific.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking. And the China Daily's warning to Turnbull - effectively to choose carefully between Australia's best economic interests and toeing the American encirclement line - begins to look like a reasonable statement.

Pivot's problems

Matters have come to a pretty pass when a totalitarian state's propaganda organ starts to make more sense than Canberra's official line and the received wisdom of the majority of Australian media Since President Obama's "pivot" declaration in 2011, Australia has:

· Practically wet itself on a bi-partisan basis in welcoming a regular US marine presence in Darwin;

· Sent RAAF aircraft on sorties close to contentious South China Sea islands at America's behest;

· Made an overt pitch to strengthen the Japanese arms industry and military co-operation with Japan by a Prime Minister pushing the purchase of Japanese submarines – at least until South Australian political imperatives intervened;

· Embarrassed ourselves by dragging the chain on joining China's US$100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank eventually slinking in after most of the West and East, dealing ourselves out of a senior position - and this is an institution that promises to fund major regional infrastructure development in which Australia would love to play a role;

· Happily hosted lectures on the evil intent of China by a particularly hawkish commander of the US Pacific fleet as he apparently dictated what our Asian policy should be;

· Jumped aboard America's China-free Trans-Pacific Partnership as head cheerleader, never mind doubts about its value to us

· Named Japan our bestie in Asia;

· Ditched previously-held principles about supplying uranium to non-signatories of the Uranium Non-proliferation Treaty in keeping with US efforts to achieve closer ties with India as part of America's China strategy; and

· Published another defence white paper that effectively fingers China as our main potential enemy

You might wonder why Beijing bothers to act so civilly towards visiting Australian Prime Ministers.

Bishop's charge

For all the delusional huffing and puffing about our role as a China-US go-between, our foreign affairs efforts have been ineffectual at best and, more often, counterproductive. It was the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who led the charge against joining the AIIB.

In a rational world, states realise that trade is a win-win business, but the economic reality is that Australia needs China and China doesn't need Australia. It's nice for us to have a fat trade surplus with China, but China doesn't much care.

For a little while there, before iron ore production went through the roof, China did indeed need to be confident of access to our ore, but now its wants are easily met by global markets. It matters more to us that we sell services and stuff to them than it matters to China where it comes from.

Thus Prime Minister Turnbull's pitch in China was primarily that of a mendicant, Australia trying to get money from China one way or another.

Xi Jinping wasn't begging for anything from Australia. It's rather strange then for the mendicant to be lecturing about military escalation when the mendicant has been a particularly willing party to starting the escalation.

Ties to America

We are collectively conditioned by history, culture, language, shared values, media ownership and, dare I suggest it, ethnicity to toe the American line against China.

One reason for the force of Paul Keating's warning against encirclement the week after Obama's November 2011 "pivot" speech was the rarity of a major political figure, even a major former political figure, being prepared to so publicly question American strategy.

So locked-in are we to the American view of China that Australia's political class and commentariat seem unable to consider the sources of conflict from China's perspective. Try wearing Chinese shoes for a while and think what the "pivot to Asia" looked like.

Border disputes in the South China Sea are old and ongoing – we should have a little understanding given our inability to sort out our border with East Timor as priority is given to securing oil and gas at the expense of one of the world's poorest nations.

But amidst the usual border tensions of a big power elbowing its smaller neighbours, suddenly an overwhelmingly superior military force says it's turning its focus away from the Middle East to concentrate on you, the Middle Kingdom.

Show across China's bows

"Pivot" is well short of George Bush's disastrous "Axis of Evil" name calling, but how did that pan out? It presaged escalating tensions and the Iraq war with all its unintended consequences. The pivot declaration and the escalated diplomatic and military policies that followed still amounted to a shot across China's bows. It's no wonder China responded.

And China always responds with a strong sense of long history. China was invaded by the Western troops in the Opium Wars, the sacking of the Summer Palace in 1860 was only yesterday.

As for Japan, the two Sino-Japanese wars and especially the horrors of Japanese occupation are vividly etched in China's psyche.

It's understandable to Chinese eyes that encouraging Japan to forsake its constitutional pacifism is threatening, with only one apparent purpose. As for the vexed you-say-Senkaku, I-say-Daioyu Islands, it would be a brave and foolish person to think China would respect any claim first made by Japan in 1895.

Both sides push their own narratives, but read the Economist magazine's account of the Okinawa kingdom's sad story and it's hard to think the aggressive Japan should be particularly favoured in the dispute, even with the dubious benefit of American-granted title.

In any event, the Sinkaku/Daioyu Islands are a long way away from Australia and pit our two most important trading partners against each other. Siding with either of them is not in our best interests.

The author is Michael Pascoe, BusinessDay Contributing editor.

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