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Finding the Source of Australian National Strength in the China Context

03 Dec 2021
By Philip Eliason
Federal Minister for Trade, Tourism & Investment Simon Birmingham speaks at the reception celebrating Australia-China ties at the Ambassador’s Residence in Beijing, 2019. Source: Aurélien Foucault

Australian leaders must decide how to adeptly navigate tensions with China. Sacred values, those generally not tradeable against pecuniary or operational sustainment, are likely to drive Australian policy on China.

Sacred values provide the basis for our personal and collective behaviour, in addition to framing the boundaries of our more difficult choices. Shared sacred values bind groups and create mutual understanding, predictability, and trust. They animate logical actions which by other assessments would seem costly or unnecessary. Australia will need to find and draw on its contemporary set of sacred values in its positioning towards China and its continued global rise.

The need to consider sacred values as part of Australia’s response to Beijing is illustrated by two starkly different viewpoints published in The Australian regarding Australia’s posture towards China. They display the current contrasting approaches to strategic uncertainty and perception of threat from China. The first viewpoint was posited by Hugh White on 21 November 2021, and the second was put forward by Peter Jennings on 23 November 2021.

Hugh White, of the Australian National University, tends to a policy of national accommodation regarding China, and its apparent inexorably growing influence in all aspects of world affairs. Therefore, he has not found a trip-wire which generates bolder positioning against Chinese activities and is unlikely to do so in the future. Peter Jennings, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), takes the position that Australia needs to have trip-wires with China, and that Canberra should show early robustness to demonstrate that it will take action to protect its current way of existence.

The accommodation and assertion schools of thought both have valid components. When Beijing’s Australia policy shift became publicly apparent, the accommodation school urged the government to exercise caution and demanded ministerial contact to remedy the financial damage done to export income by Beijing. Negligible attention was paid to other demonstrations of Chinese influence and control exerted through Australian institutions, notably through universities, despite the strength of evidence published by ASPI and by researchers such as Clive Hamilton in his 2018 book Silent Invasion. Concern about the economic consequences declined with exporters making market adjustments following the May 2020 Chinese sanctions. This leaves the main line of opinion focusing on various thresholds for tougher Australian policy towards China and analysis of the intent of the United States and its ability to deal with China.

The assertion school wants Australia’s policy to be clear and firm, with more elaborate military arrangements with like-minded countries to deter China and politically strengthen the international system. The favourable rules-based order continues to provide the basis for cooperation between the European Union, the United States, countries in South and Southeast Asia, and the Pacific.

A 2021 survey of the standing of China’s soft power and influence in 17 European countries shows that European states are disinclined to listen to Beijing, and actively deny it leverage from its soft-power investments and economic importance. As countries push back, China’s approach is likely to shift from growing its appeal to pressing its influence.

Australia’s response to China will have to both be measured against those of its other international friends and press ahead where it must. However, it must also draw on nationally coalescing factors which create an acceptable and comprehensible foundation for national resistance and response to Chinese pressure.

Australia is not monocultural, nor has it the satisfaction of a core religious, ethnic, or aspirational identity. Additionally, it has weak internal cohesion on common values which can mobilise national efforts to project influence sufficient to comfort the country about its security. Such so-called “sacred values”  are not only what drive people and groups into collective defence or violent extremism, but also what drive people in negotiations to settle conflicts.

Sacred values include the conception of human rights, the role of the individual within society, liberty, justice and the rule of law, and political participation in setting laws. When asked to trade off sacred values in a deal with a peace dividend, research shows that people  typically react with a hostile “backfire effect,” plus an increased commitment to these sacred values and a higher potential for protective violence or preparation for it.

The role of sacred values is applicable to all regions and levels of discord, and their effect has been demonstrated in controlled experiments. Sacred values are also layered, in that limited trade-offs for assured security can take place, of course depending on the gravity of the threat. Outright dismissal of sacred values has been demonstrated to fail.

Sacred values relate to group emotion and identity and are used by political leaders to mobilise their constituents to shape acceptance of policy changes and action. Use of “sacred values” language also discredits adversaries during political debate. This may later befall Australian business lobbies because sacred values arguably matter more than money.

Jennings says the China threat is not tolerable on a structural and national autonomy basis. White implies the China threat is tolerable on the basis of trade, income, and employment, and that we should adapt to its new geopolitical environment.

This debate is not yet settled in the Australian political world. There are many other issues in play: what do Australia’s Southeast Asian friends think? Are Australia’s European allies thinking along the same basic lines? Sacred values may be employed sooner than we expect in our policy positioning. This is because China has not indicated that it intends to cease or decrease its foreign policy activity, which is seen by many states as both malignant and dangerous.

Research on “sacred values” in political negotiations shows that a lack of outcome options, inappropriate negotiating procedures, and poor recognition of emotions set in a context where sacred values are in play, typically causes poor results. China’s diplomatic rhetoric and methods directed at Australia embody these factors.

How would a future shift in Australia’s foreign policy position be seen by the public and presented by the political class, especially if China threatens Australia’s sacred values? Typically, the alignment between sacred values and government policies depends on recognising whether sacred values are the foundation of current policy, or if these policies are simply a set of responses derived from standard diplomatic practice. If there are calls on values in the policy process, the public needs to identify if these are today’s values or if they are projected forward to a policy goal, thereby revealing that these values are subject to amendment according to policy results. If there are sacred values that form the  foundation for policy, it is also important to consider whether  the public would accept conceding  a sacred value to China, as a tool to protect and promote others and get beyond an impasse. However, research shows that such concessions are difficult to make under either threats or inducements.

Policymakers need to note the rhetorical framing and content of any future dialogue with China and assess this not only against our values and interests, but against the set of values we assess to be held by Australia’s allies in their dealings with Beijing. The authenticity and power of policy lies in the explicit degree of reference to Australia’s sense of self and identity, and is what appears to be traded-off when exercising caution towards China. A clear indicator that sacred values have yet to be drawn on would be a situation where Australia’s strategy on China is sectorally driven. If it were driven by sectoral motivations, we would expect the level of reference to sacred values in the promotion of, for example, education exports, to be lower than the reference to them in preparation for greater deterrence against  China’s territorial and political acquisitiveness in the Pacific.

So far, Australia does not have a clear path and must choose between one of two directions: trade and money, or values. The big issue facing the government is how to create a wider and convincing range of responses to China. To do so, consolidating a national position around the currently hard to pin down Australian values is essential. This matter requires Australia’s various identity communities to take on a set of values and principles which commonly define the country and its citizens’ rights, responsibilities, and expectations. So far, Australia’s China policy has largely been reserved for expert strategists. For a nationally effective response to the threat of an unfavourable fundamental change in circumstances caused by China, sacred values need to be found, clarified, and called on as required to bolster policy resolve.

Philip Eliason is a former Australian diplomat, and has worked in Yemen, Libya and Tunisia on UK, EU. He has also worked on USAID funded justice sector reform, political dialogue, and constitutional development programs. In 2017-18 he was the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s Senior Advisor on MENA, Africa and International Security.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.