Avoiding the zero-sum game in the Pacific

Australia’s renewed Prime Minister Scott Morrison travels to Osaka in Japan later this month for a G20 summit but the relatively new leader will have more on his mind than simply getting to know his fellow world leaders.

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

Morrison - and he won’t be alone - will be dealing with what is far and away Australia and the region’s greatest foreign and security policy challenge since the Vietnam War. Arguably, since World War II.

"A slowing economy in a softening global environment is one thing; Australian’s long term security in a world that is changing before our eyes is another.”

Australian policy-making is at the intersection of the most complex set of security policy challenges faced by Canberra in several generations.

China’s rise and its increasing assertiveness mean no Australian government can any longer avoid the existential questions inherent in a rapidly shifting strategic environment.

Nor can Canberra escape the reality that America under a Donald Trump administration is no longer the stabilising force globally that policy-makers had come to take for granted.

This is not an anti-Trump observation, simply a statement of fact.


Like all great powers throughout history, America is pushing back against challenges to its global dominance and economic primacy in ways that are in their own right disruptive. And likely to become more so.

In a speech to the Hudson Institute in 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence heralded what some have interpreted as a new Cold War. In unusually pointed remarks, Pence accused China of seeking to undermine American democracy and, ruthlessly, use its growing economic power.

“America had hoped that economic liberalisation would bring China into greater partnership with us and with the world. Instead, China has chosen economic aggression, which has, in turn, emboldened its growing military,” he said.

This intensifying superpower rivalry is taking place in Australia’s backyard - or front porch.

Testing the waters

This is what PM Morrison, who has no experience in foreign and security policy beyond his time as a member of the security committee of Cabinet, will be dealing with in his new term of office. He will be required to tread carefully or, to use an aphorism popularised by Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader of the latter Twentieth Century: cross the river by feeling the stones.

That of course, as with any leader, will be a test of his ability to master the subtleties of statecraft. Managing Australia’s response to profound geopolitical shifts in our own region will be this government’s defining foreign policy challenge.

A slowing economy in a softening global environment is one thing; Australian’s long term security in a world that is changing before our eyes is another.

Morrison’s recent “step-up” in the south-west Pacific to assert Australia’s prerogatives in its own sphere of influence to balance China’s growing assertiveness makes policy sense as long as it does not lead to unnecessary confrontation.

It would be a rookie mistake to be sucked in to a hawkish China-bashing mindset that views Beijing’s machinations in the region purely through a security prism.

The description of China during the recent election as ‘customers’ far from did justice to the complexities of the relationship and presumably was an off-the-cuff response to a journalist’s question.


In reality, China is variously the number one recipient of Australian merchandise exports; the number one recipient of Australian services exports; Australia’s fifth largest investor (if Hong Kong is included) behind the US, UK, Belgium and Japan; a neighbour in the Indo Pacific; a fellow member of the G20; and a rising superpower with a nuclear capability.

All this dictates a more sophisticated and independent-minded approach to dealing with China than has been the case since the Chinese began opening their economy to the outside world in 1978 following the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

That occasion marked the beginning of one of the most extraordinary transformations in world economic history. It demands an Australian response beyond sheltering behind former Prime Minister John Howard’s insistence that Australia did not need to choose between its history and its geography.

Howard meant Australia could remain on the sidelines as rivalry between its security guarantor and economic partner played itself out.

This is no longer option. Canberra needs to engage in the sort of creative thinking when it comes to China to date absent from a policy cocooned by expectations that America will provide a security umbrella in perpetuity.

The old view was predicated on the assumption the US security hegemony across the Pacific was such that it would remain an unchallenged military force. Clearly, that is no longer the case.

Wiggle room

In Australia’s Real Choice about China, security analyst Hugh White doubts America would be willing to pay the cost of confronting China.

“The Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy…finally acknowledged that China is a serious strategic rival, and committed America to resist. But nothing was said then or since about how to do that, or how much America is willing to pay,” he said.

None of this suggests Australia strike out on its own - the American alliance remains the cornerstone of Australian security - rather it is an argument for a policy that seeks to achieve greater wiggle room for Australian policy.

Canberra does not need to be seen in lock-step with Washington on how it relates to its immediate region. Any repositioning of Australian policy vis-a-vis China will need to be conducted subtly and mindful that minor shifts can be misinterpreted.

Clearly, the status quo is no longer tenable.


In Washington, under the Trump administration, the China hawks are in the ascendancy, at least for the moment. In Canberra, the security establishment, inside and outside the bureaucracy, appears to be poised to follow suit.

Beijing will not have overlooked Canberra’s “forward-leaning” on the matter of Chinese technology giant Huawei’s licence to operate internationally.

Yet debate about how to manage China’s rise is dominated by security hawks. There are other voices that need to be heard.

My former colleague Martin Wolf of the Financial Times warned in a perceptive and influential column of protracted conflict with China - The Looming 100-year USA-China conflict - in which a “zero-sum” game mentality is emerging.

In other words, China-bashing in Washington is viewed as one in which only one side can prevail. This is a dangerous mindset, one that appears to have its adherents in Canberra.

“A blend of competition with cooperation is the right way forward. Such an approach to managing China’s rise must include cooperating with like-minded allies and treating China with respect,” Wolf wrote.

“The tragedy of what is now happening is that the administration is simultaneously launching a conflict between the two powers, attacking its allies and destroying the institution of the postwar US-led order. Today’s attack on China is the wrong war, fought in the wrong way, on the wrong terrain. Alas, this is where we are now.”

Hopefully the Wolf column has been well read in Canberra.

Tony Walker is a bluenotes contributor, former Financial Times correspondent in China and former Australian Financial Review political editor.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

editor's picks

07 Dec 2018

G20, the US and China: omens not good

Tony Walker | Author and Political Analyst

The dust has settled on a melodramatic G20 summit in Buenos Aires with trade and tariffs hitting a speed bump.

16 May 2019

LONGREAD: trade war? Gimme shelter

Tony Walker | Author and Political Analyst

The relationship between the US and China is reaching boiling point with outcomes which will impact many other nations, including Australia.