HomeAFP“US, China, and Australia: is it all just playground politics?”

“US, China, and Australia: is it all just playground politics?”

Hong Kong protests. Chinese influence in Australian universities. Uyghurs in internment camps. Australia finds itself in an increasingly uncomfortable position as it becomes strung up in global tensions.

International politics emulates the eternal playground struggle. Kids battle with each other to decide who will be the supreme ruler of the schoolyard. Someone makes a jaded comment. This leads to a shove. Followed by a bigger push. Then suddenly it becomes a brawl and a teacher swoops in to pull apart fists. If the United States and China are the primary troublemakers, who is Australia in this skirmish?

Australia is often labelled as a ‘middle power’ – it is neither the schoolyard leader, nor is it the little kid on the bottom rung. Jostled between two opposing powers, Australia currently occupies the position of the bystander. It is difficult for Australia to make a move in favour of China without offending the United States and vice versa. On one hand, China is the number one consumer of Australian exports: natural resources and tertiary education. The economic relationship is bolstered by a free-trade agreement struck between the two nations in 2014. On the other hand, the United States has been a key military ally since the Second World War and has bases located in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Australia is left stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Senior Lecturer of International Relations at the Australian National University, Dr Darren Lim, observes that, “As the level of competition between the major powers increases, the scope for creative foreign policy for a middle power like Australia narrows. The greater the felt sense of strategic competition, the broader the scope of activities that both the United States and China will perceive as affecting their national security.”

This comment sheds some light on China’s unabashed arrest of Australian academic Yang Hengjun under suspicions of espionage. It would seem that China is testing the extent of Australia’s tolerance level and it may have found the limit. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refuted the espionage claims but this response has little to do with Yang himself. China has declared its sovereignty at stake if there is any interference with Chinese judicial proceedings whereas the mistreatment of an Australian undermines Australia’s own national autonomy. This situation sees one of the playground ringleaders prodding the bystander to see what makes them flinch.

Concessions are costly in the playground. Australia knows if it caves in even once to China it will offend the other playground ringleader: The United States. Lim describes the divisive nature of this relationship, “In an increasingly zero-sum mindset, more and more foreign policy choices by Australia may be seen by the major powers as either being “for” or “against” their interests, and pleasing both will become increasingly elusive. This will make the fine line Australia has sought to walk, to balance relations with both powers, an even more fraught exercise.”

The recent debates about Chinese interference in Australian Universities have demonstrated this tightrope walking. Australian universities have become the crossroads for Australia-China tensions. Violent clashes and protests stemming from the Hong Kong protests have broken out at the University of Queensland and Monash University. This eruption comes after previous incidents of Chinese hacking and the re-assessment of the presence of Confucius Institutes at Australian Universities.

Although Australia has clearly reaffirmed its friendship with the US with its strong stance against China’s expansion in the South China Sea, its tentative domestic responses reveals Australia’s reluctance to pledge itself wholeheartedly to one playground leader or another. And unlike in the schoolyard, there will be no teacher rushing over as adjudicator. Australia must take a stance or risk taking a major blow in the next playground fight.

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