Australia has become “something of a test case” in China’s push to dominate the Indo-Pacific economically and militarily, the head of Australia’s National Security College said Monday.
Rory Medcalf, speaking at a Center for New American Security Forum, said “what we’ve seen in Australia the last five or six years [became] a wake-up call” of Beijing trying to impose “a veto over the sovereignty of nations.”
He termed the technology sharing agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, known as AUKUS, and building Canberra’s first nuclear-powered submarines, “as a recognition of the challenge from China.” He said this step by the Biden administration goes beyond Washington’s treaty with Canberra or its existing sharing of military intelligence as a positive recognition “of the trajectory of Chinese military power.”
Later, Medcalf said “the risks to this region [from China] are not going to be over in five or six years.”
Medcalf said the agreement also recognizes the economic dimension of the competition with Beijing, as China pushes its own trading arrangement for the region and Belt and Road initiative into Africa and Europe.
“We want to see more” from AUKUS than nuclear-powered submarines, Medcalf said. “The early signs are good” on sharing advanced technologies like artificial intelligence. Medcalf made these remarks as the nations formally signed the agreement to build the nuclear-powered submarines. He added that he did not expect any change in Australia’s commitment to the agreement, its participation in the informal Quad security arrangement or support of Taiwan “short of war” following Australia’s federal elections this spring, no matter which party wins.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison leads the Liberal/National Party coalition, which is being challenged by the Australian Labor Party.
“The hard work now lies with us and the Brits” into turning the agreement into reality, Medcalf said.
While Canberra is weathering the storm of Beijing’s high tariffs on Australian products from wine to coal and trade embargoes, Medcalf added that the situation would be “much more unpleasant for smaller nations closer to China.” Beijing has also tried to influence Australian elections through bribery and by targeting the large Chinese diaspora through extensive disinformation campaigns.
The latest Chinese moves against Australia came after Canberra kept insisting on transparency from Beijing about the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Looking back historically, Medcalf, the author of Indo-Pacific Empire: China, America and the Contest for the World’s Pivotal Region, said “China seems to have trapped itself in this imperialism” mode by becoming more authoritarian domestically and with its aggressive behavior abroad.
He added that President Xi Jinping’s leadership could be leading China to “imperial overreach,” creating friction points far from its immediate national interests. Medcalf questioned whether the Chinese Communist Party’s model under Xi would work in other nations, since it lacks a succession plan and China has a future where it also will be coping with an aging demographic demanding more services.
Medcalf cited Beijing’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in refusing to be transparent about its origins as “a depressing example” of how China works internationally. “The pandemic has been a really troubling” time in trying to build cooperation with China on an issue of importance globally with little positive reaction in Beijing to work together.
Lisa Curtis, the director of CNAS’s Indo-Pacific security program, said during the panel discussion following Medcalf’s presentation that China “is not helping their case in pursuing this aggressive” behavior in the East China and South China seas and Taiwan Strait, as pandemic recovery is underway.
When asked what role Europe can play in the Indo-Pacific, Medcalf said “it’s not going to be ships in the water,” referring to the U.K. Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group’s recent deployment and growing French and German naval presence in the region. He argued Europe must pay attention to governance, infrastructure, connectivity and development and working with Japan, India and the the U.S. in these areas.
He also saw the Quad – the informal security agreement between the U.S., Australia, India and Japan – that could possibly see other Indo-Pacific nations joining the arrangement as forging technology standards, agreeing on 5G communications and developing alternative supply chains.
Michael Green, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies for Asia and Japan, said these navies’ actions demonstrate “will power” and that Europeans “are not afraid to show the flag.”
He added this also is a signal to China that Beijing can’t count on Europe remaining aloof from a crisis in the Indo-Pacific.
As the session was nearing an end, Medcalf described the dispute with France over the cancellation of Australia’s contract with Paris to building diesel submarines as “a family feud. We all need to grow out of it as fast as possible.”
Australia needs “to find other common grounds with the French and other Europeans,” he said.