Part of the problem, of course, is that Australia already has a long-standing great and powerful friend in the form of the US. Even with an erratic, ill-informed, transactionally-minded president in the White House, Australia’s ties with the US remain rock solid. If Donald Trump can’t undermine the alliance with Australia, it’s difficult to see what would.
Part of the reason why relations with the US are so strong is that the two countries have a lot of shared history and values. But it is also important to recognize that the relationship is strengthened by enduring institutional links in which senior leaders meet on a regular basis. The fact that the Australian public is generally well disposed toward the US doesn’t hurt either.
Things are very different when it comes to China. Not only is there nothing like as much institutional ballast to cement ties between the two countries, but China is still not well understood by the public or even many of Australia’s policymakers. Consequently, there is an instinctive nervousness – even suspicion – when it comes to dealing with the People’s Republic.
To be fair, China’s foreign policy has often contributed to the unease. The perception that China’s rise is unsettling the established order, posing a potential threat to Australian security and strategic interests, is increasingly pervasive. Not many opinion leaders unambiguously buy into the idea of win-win diplomacy or are convinced about the supposed benefits of a peaceful rise.
Whether they are right to be concerned or not, the reality is that many in Australia – and around the region, for that matter – remain skeptical about the possible impact of China and the prospects for regional stability. Even if some Chinese observers argue that the fears are groundless and being stoked by an American administration keen to maintain its hegemonic position, this doesn’t make the nervousness any less real.
In order to try and remedy these negative perceptions, China’s government and a number of prominent officials and business leaders have been trying to influence popular perceptions in Australia and – more controversially – the policy process itself. While there may be widespread acceptance of initiatives such as those of the Confucius Institute, actively lobbying local politicians has proved to be quite another matter.
There is now a heated debate in Australia over the wisdom of allowing prominent Chinese individuals – even some with Australian passports – to make contributions to Australian political parties. Two property developers – Chau Chak Wing and Huang Xiangmo – have given nearly A$7 million to Australia’s major political parties. Chau has also donated A$1.8 million to help establish the Australia China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, which is headed by former foreign minister, Bob Carr.
The question many are asking in Australia is whether all this generosity comes with implicit expectations of reciprocity. The possibility that influence can be bought in Australia was given credence and prominence when Labor Senator Sam Dastyari sprang to the defense of China’s policies in the South China Sea – in apparent defiance of his own party’s policy.
There is plenty of blame to go round in all this. Many countries forbid foreigners from making political donations because they are concerned about the impact of possible influence buying. By contrast, both major political parties in Australia have enthusiastically pursued wealthy Chinese potential donors to help them finance increasingly expensive electoral campaigns.
If nothing else, the current controversies may finally prod Australia’s policymakers into some much needed and overdue domestic political reforms. And yet this is unlikely to put an end to the controversies that continue to swirl around Australia’s relationship with China, or those assumed to be acting on its behalf. In defense of Australia’s political system, it does have a degree of transparency that allows us to recognize possible conflicts of interest when they occur. Or it does when they are predicated on direct financial support, at least.
The contrast with American influence is striking and informative. The closeness of the alliance with the US is explained in part by history and in part by formal links that bind the policymaking elites of the two countries together. China cannot begin to match that institutionalized influence or goodwill. Little surprise, perhaps, that other channels have been explored by a rising power that is still trying to make sense of the sometimes inscrutable ways of the West.
The author is a professor of international politics at the University of Western Australia. [email protected]