The China consensus
March 14 2022
THE CHINA CONSENSUS: A PRE-ELECTION SURVEY OF COALITION GOVERNMENT AND AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY POLICIES ON THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA
- As Australia moves closer to a federal election, national security has emerged as a major Coalition government campaign pillar, with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) cast as the primary strategic challenge facing the nation. The government has gone on the offensive with respect to the opposition Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) record on national security and, in particular, its approach to the PRC, an increasingly heated clash of views and political rhetoric.
- There is divergence between the major parties with respect to how policy should be effected, with the ALP stressing the need for a greater emphasis on diplomatic tone and conduct, but what are the differences between the parties on policy substance? This detailed study demonstrates that the incumbent Coalition government and the opposition Labor Party broadly coalesce on national security and, in particular, their respective approaches towards PRC policy. This agreement is unsurprising in the face of a PRC that has adopted a more aggressive posture on the world stage, not least in its adoption of coercive economic measures against a wide range of Australian export industries. The period from late 2016, after all, has witnessed a fundamental reassessment in both parties of the PRC relationship.
- Responding to the PRC’s trade sanctions
Both parties have labelled Beijing’s trade sanctions against Australia ‘economic coercion’, starting to do so from the first half of 2020, and have been continuously vocal in expressing concerns about the PRC’s economic punishment of Australian industries. Both support the diversification of the country’s exports away from exposure to the PRC, while maintaining constructive business and commercial relationships with the PRC. The ALP has indicated that any movement towards improving Australia’s relationship with the PRC under a Labor government will be reliant on the ‘removal of all of the economic pressures and effective sanctions against Australia and Australian products and exports.’
- Defence spending
The government’s commitment, announced in July 2020, of $270 billion to the Department of Defence over 10 years, an increase of $70 billion, is a commitment the Labor Party has pledged to uphold. In March 2022, the ALP indicated support for a ‘further increase in investment in defence’ in view of ‘the way things were heading’ on the global landscape, pledging to spend more than two percent of GDP on defence budgets. Both parties have also signalled that strengthening the domestic defence industry is a priority.
The ALP has indicated strong support for the substance of the trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK and the US (AUKUS), though criticising what it termed a lack of ‘diplomatic legwork’ in managing the announcement. The ALP has also raised questions over the roll-out of nuclear submarines, focusing on costs, jobs, capability and capacity, and has pledged to ensure the government commits to nuclear non-proliferation obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
While the Defence Minister had been unequivocal during the second half of 2021 about the application of the ANZUS Treaty to any military conflict between the US and the PRC over Taiwan, the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have refrained from endorsing this view. Indeed, in March 2022, the Defence Minister appeared to assume a more cautious position on the matter. There has been increasing rhetorical support for Taiwan from both major parties, yet neither the government nor the ALP has talked of abandoning the commitment to the one-China policy. The ALP has been explicit about continuing strategic ambiguity and the maintenance of the status quo in line with the US position. Although President Joe Biden has made remarks in the affirmative committing the US to the defence of Taiwan in the event of military conflict with the PRC, White House officials have subsequently stated there is no change in US policy, which remains guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, and the Biden administration has maintained this position in substance.
- The Quad
The ALP has maintained continuous support for the Quad comprising Australia, the US, Japan and India since its revival in 2017, undertaking to continue to engage with the Quad should they win office.
- Expansion of autonomous sanctions legislation
The ALP has been supportive of the expansion of Australia’s sanctions legislation, having pledged commitment to Magnitsky-style legislation for Australia earlier than the government.
- Foreign Relations Act
The ALP supported the legislation (Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Act 2020) despite the bulk of its proposed amendments not being agreed to. The ALP had criticised the bill for being ‘announced in haste before it was ready’, and without proper consultation, calling on the government to ‘rewrite the legislation’.
- Belt and Road Initiative
Both parties have ruled out Australian participation in the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The ALP did not obstruct the federal government’s cancellation of the state of Victoria’s BRI agreements with the PRC, indicating that they had expected this decision once the Foreign Relations Act had passed with their support. The cancellation of the agreements followed a review process implemented under Australia’s Foreign Arrangements Scheme, established by the Foreign Relations Act.
- Port of Darwin 99-year lease
IN BROAD AGREEMENT
Since 2015 the ALP has flagged its opposition to the lease of the Port of Darwin and supported a 2021 Defence review into the asset instigated by the government. The government has not as yet made a decision as to whether to intervene and cancel the contract despite the review, according to press reports in December 2021, finding there ‘were no national security grounds sufficient to recommend government intervention’, while the ALP has refrained from assuming a public stance on what they believe the government ought to do.
- South China Sea
The ALP supports the stronger stance assumed by the government on the South China Sea from 2020, that is, that under the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) there is no legal basis to many of Beijing’s claims. Both parties have also consistently called for the July 2016 decision on a dispute between the Philippines and the PRC over territorial claims in the South China Sea handed down by an international arbitral tribunal to be abided by. The government has thus far refrained from participating in US-style freedom of navigation operations within the 12 nautical mile zone of maritime features claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea, despite calls to do so from the Obama and Trump administrations, and the ALP has obliquely supported Coalition government policy by stating that any decision to join such operations is a ‘matter for the government of the day’.
- Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
Both parties have continuously and consistently registered concern over human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang but have stopped short of defining the actions against the population as ‘genocide’.
- The PRC’s bid to enter the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership
Consideration of the bid by either party will only follow the cessation of Beijing’s trade punishment against Australia.
- Diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics
Both parties supported a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics given concerns about human rights abuses in the PRC. Before the announcement of the boycott, the ALP indicated its willingness to work with the government ‘to agree a bipartisan, national position on the level of Australia’s diplomatic representation’.
The ALP has been supportive of the Australian government’s actions with respect to the PRC and state-sponsored cyber-attacks, including publicly directly attributing attacks to Beijing.
- Huawei / ZTE and 5G
Both parties supported the exclusion of Huawei and ZTE from the rollout of Australia’s 5G network, with the ALP ruling out any reconsideration of the decision.
- Foreign interference legislation
The ALP agreed to support the foreign interference bill introduced in 2017 after the Turnbull government accepted 60 amendments recommended by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.
- The use of national security as a political weapon to create the appearance of division on the cusp of an election plays to longstanding claims that the Coalition is better at managing Australia’s foreign and defence policy, particularly during moments of international turbulence.
- Both parties have historically been emphatic about the need to maintain the international rules-based order and, at the same time, stand up for Australian values. Bipartisanship on this central international question endured until the middle of last year, when Prime Minister Morrison began to frame the Australian government’s view of the world in stark ideological terms, as something best understood through the prism of liberal democracies versus authoritarianism, crescendoing in his warning in March 2022 that a new 'arc of autocracy' was emerging 'to challenge and reset the world order in their own image.'
- The fundamental concurrence between the Coalition and the ALP on PRC policy is challenged by a number of figures in both parties who are pushing for an even tougher line towards Beijing. The government that takes office following the May election will inevitably face issues and challenges that will make the management of Australia’s PRC policy different to what has existed in recent years: the Russia-Ukraine crisis clearly demonstrates this. Exactly what the PRC-Russia joint statement portends is not yet known, as is the ultimate aftermath of the war in Ukraine. These developments will bring other, troubling dimensions to the challenge the Australian government will face as it manages relations with the PRC.
- The Coalition-ALP China consensus has, in recent years, led to policy convergence on the need to push back against Beijing whenever its actions are bullying or coercive. This convergence, however, has resulted in policy stasis, one which, given the fluidity and unpredictability of current circumstances, any future government will need to confront and perhaps move beyond.
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Elena Collinson is a senior researcher at the Australia-China Relations Institute, the University of Technology Sydney.
Manager, Research Analysis