Sydney Town Hall is central to the civic life of this city. Its marble steps are a favorite meeting place for Sydneysiders. Over the years, this secular cathedral has hosted rallies, political conferences and prime ministers’ funerals.
A different kind of occasion had been planned this week at the hall: a memorial concert for the 40th anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong, a man responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people.
The event was organized by Chinese-Australians and businesses intent on currying favor with the government in Beijing. Following protests from other Chinese-Australian groups and concern from the police about public safety, the concert was canceled, as was a similar one scheduled in Melbourne.
The episode was a vivid illustration of the increasingly fraught nature of the Australian debate on relations with China. Some businesses, community groups and politicians want to shift Australia toward a closer relationship with Beijing. Other Australians wary of Beijing’s growing influence in the region are pushing back.
The public appears divided. In a poll my organization conducted this year asking which country was more important to Australia, 43 percent chose the United States and 43 percent named China.
The backdrop for the debate is China’s increasing economic importance to Australia. China is our largest trading partner; exports to China, principally of natural resources, have grown fivefold in the past decade. Chinese investors have been buying stakes in construction projects and land, contributing to a rise in property prices in major Australian cities.
But Beijing’s forays into Australia extend beyond typical investments. Australians can now read the Communist Party line in monthly inserts placed in leading newspapers by a Chinese government-backed media group. Chinese-language news outlets in Australia, once loud and diverse, are increasingly wary of angering Beijing.
An investigation by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation revealed that rivers of money have been flowing to Australian political parties from companies and individuals with ties to the Chinese government. These donations are not illegal, but the head of Australia’s domestic security agency has said they raise national security questions.
The question of how to deal with China’s influence in Australia, a steadfast ally of the United States, is being sharpened by Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the international arena, which includes broad claims in the South China Sea.
Chinese investment in Australian infrastructure has caused the most controversy. The Australian government rejected the sale of Australia’s largest private land holding to a Chinese conglomerate and blocked a Chinese bid for a major electricity grid, Ausgrid, on national-security grounds.
The grant of a 99-year lease for control of the port of Darwin to a Chinese company said to have links to the People’s Liberation Army alarmed many commentators and surprised the United States. President Obama is reported to have asked Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for warning next time Australians make a deal with such strategic implications. The United States regularly rotates Marines through Darwin.
For most of Australia’s history, the world was run by liberal Western democracies like our own. But now our largest trading partner, China, has become the most serious rival of our principal ally, the United States.
Some Australian strategists argue that we must do more to accommodate China’s rise. They say we should keep our noses out of China’s internal affairs and maritime policies. We should accept that the future regional order will be dominated by China, they argue. Some analysts even suggest that we should use our influence in Washington to encourage the United States to share power with Beijing in Asia.
But why should Australians encourage the withdrawal of a longtime ally that remains the global leader, a country that shares our worldview? Why would we tilt toward China, a country that is so different from our own, with a foreign policy that is notably uneven? Would Beijing reciprocate such a gesture? I have never heard an expert on China say that Beijing respects weakness.
It is more sensible for Australia to hedge against the risk of uncertain future behavior from China by deepening our connections with other major Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, and by keeping the United States deeply engaged in the region.
Few Asian countries relish the prospect of a region dominated by one large state. Most prefer a balance of forces in Asia, including the renewed presence of the United States and a general acceptance of international norms and the rule of law.
When Australia’s interests align with China’s interests, we should be ambitious about the things we can do together. Last year, for instance, Australia signed a free-trade agreement with China and joined the China-led Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank. But when our interests and China’s interests diverge, then our paths should diverge.
Australia’s relations with China will be influenced significantly by how America conducts itself in the region. Most Asian countries welcomed President Obama’s vow to rebalance American foreign policy to focus more on Asia. But the pivot to Asia is running out of steam in his second term.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, the economic centerpiece of the pivot, may not pass Congress, and both Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump are opposed to the passage of the treaty. Mr. Trump’s allergy to alliances, sympathy toward strongmen, and support for American retrenchment make for a toxic combination that would corrode America’s position in Asia.
If we Australians are to work with international partners, including the United States, to uphold a rules-based order in Asia and influence the future trajectory of Chinese behavior, then Washington must be a reliable partner.
Michael Fullilove is the executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy.