The awkward special relationship

Thursday, 2 April 2009 

Funny thing, race. On the one hand you can have a real racist beat-up that everyone talks about as a child welfare issue. On the other you can have what everyone says is a race scare that in reality is about something else entirely.

The sly innuendoes from the coalition over the government’s relationship with China (Abbott did a wonderful job on Sunday) and the government’s affected outrage in response are trying to make this issue about getting too close to China. In fact, both sides of the political class are grappling with a much more difficult problem than Australia’s relationship to China, its relationship to the US.

Lets start by recalling the most important feature of Australian foreign policy that is highly unusual for a middle-ranking power – it has to constantly act as a global player when it doesn’t have the power to do so. Ever since it was a colonial outpost of the British Empire, it has meant attaching itself very close to whoever happens to be the global power of the day. If that means having to follow them on pretty well every military venture, so be it. There is no real alternative, because unfortunately Australia can’t do regional.

No doubt the Australian political class wants to do regional, and to a certain extent it can, especially when the leading power’s grip on the Asian region is unsure. But there is always a limit. One is that Asian leaders always know that when push comes to shove, Australia’s interests will always be back with the leading power. This impression is not from an attitude problem on Australia’s part, it comes from bitter experience. When the Vietnamese were trying to fight off the US they had to deal with Australia as well, when the Malaysians were trying to shake of the Brits, Australia was there on the wrong side again.

The second limit, and what makes the Asians always right, is that the Australian political class is too weak to stand on its own. The political class’s lack of authority comes up every time an attempt is made to stop using a clapped out English family as our Head of State and their lack of authority makes it difficult for them to resist the temptation to go to Washington to try and find it. If it allows the leader of a middle-ranking country to strut the world like a major military power as Howard did over Iraq, sucking up to Washington clearly has its uses.

The problem for the Australian political class is that the source of their authority is starting to have problems of its own. It is becoming clear from the run up to the G20 summit that the Europeans liking of Obama did not mean that they would start following America again, but that they knew Obama would be more aware of the futility of trying to make them. France and Germany are taking the unusual step of turning into a bun fight what is supposed to be a warm get together that would allow the political leaders around the world to show that they are at least doing something.

It is not as though there is any real issue at stake, the Europeans are arguing for more regulation, which is supposed to be what the Anglo Saxons are for as well. EU priorities are restricting their ability to run up more deficits, but then the UK’s Gordon Brown doesn’t seem to have noticed that the Governor of the Bank of England has told him the same thing as well. France and Germany’s opposition is less about raising a disagreement of substance than to grab another opportunity to say that the US world order has had its day.

If the US doesn’t look as though it is achieving anything, then it makes it harder for Rudd to look as though he is doing anything as well. He and Brown went to St Paul’s Cathedral to give a speech on the evils of capitalism to show that if you can’t do anything practical, you can at least moralise about it. Rudd recognises that a reorganisation of the global order is needed and the raising of China’s profile seems part of that solution. But even China is not capable of taking on the demands that are being made on it and which are increasing by the day as the economic situation gets even worse.

China is at least a focal point for activity that something must change in the global order, even if it is not clear what. It is also how the Australian political class on both sides of the fence gets its head around the problem of the failing US world order as well. Raising concerns about the relationship with China is a way of talking about the real concern, the US framework within which Australia has pursued its interests for the last fifty years, is falling apart. Clearly as the wing of the political class most loyal to that order, the coalition is struggling with the US’s zig-zagging efforts to regain its leadership. There will be nothing Rudd can do in his entire Prime Ministership that will beat the faux pas of his predecessor calling the current US President a preferred choice of terrorism. With that sort of feel for the new administration, no wonder the coalition prefers to talk of China.

However, if it is clear that there has been a failure to find an international solution, it will be bad news for Rudd. He doesn’t really have anything on the domestic front by way of a counter-crisis strategy. The moralising may move up a notch, but one thing about leading a political class that lacks authority is that you can’t get away with that for long. If Rudd has nothing to come home with, it would probably be time to call the height of his popularity, as giddy as it was.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 2 April 2009.

Filed under International relations

Tags: , , ,


6 responses to “The awkward special relationship”

  1. DM on 2nd April 2009 11:21 am

    Overall a great article, although I disagree with you on some points. I think the fact that Australia always stands should-to-shoulder with the US and/or Britian has got everything to do with race, and nothing to do with Australia’s presumed reliance on whoever happens to be in the prime position globally. This fact is occluded simply because for the last 200 years one or the other Anglo power has been the dominating superpower in the world, which means that you can make the argument that Australia’s international behaviour is just a natural way of falling on the side of the more powerful player. However, if you look at the rhetoric of our modern-day leaders you will find otherwise. The latest example is Rudd’s speech at the memorial service in London for Victoria’s bushfire victims, in which he clearly stated that one of the things that bind us to Britain are “our blood-ties with Britain”. This is such a clear invocation of race, and racial belonging, that the fact it has been glossed over only confirms its normative power in Australian society even to this day. Can you imagine the outcry if a representative of an Australian ethnic minority had made a similar remark in regard to their own origins?

  2. Luckydave on 2nd April 2009 12:39 pm

    For a while I have used the phrase “Australia reserves the right to be a colony of someone” with a degree of cynicism.

    Last century saw Australian loyalty transitioned from Britian to the US almost seamlessly – catalysed during WW2.

    I suspect we will transition to China in this century, coupled with a greater sense of internationalism that enables the UK and US links to remain, albeit weakened.

    China, despite its huge size, is capable of dramatic change. A democratic China is not impossible this century. Being closely engaged with a China that is blossoming, holds great promise for Australia and the region.

    The really complex relationship for Australia remains Indonesia.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 2nd April 2009 5:26 pm

    Some interesting points here.

    I agree DM there is a racial element to the discussions but I don’t think it is a driving force. For the NT issue there was clearly an irrational basis (lack of proof, wild unbelievable claims of mass child abuse) that would suggest a racial under-pinning. On the discussions around China I am not convinced that is the same driver.

    I note for example that much of the contact that is causing such ‘concern’ happened years ago and caused little problems at the time. I don’t think the real issue is China. It is only in the last few months since the global order has been questioned that this has come up and the issue there is really about the role of the US and what this means for Australia.

    BTW just on the real race issue, I thought the comment on the Lateline report by one of the members of the Urapuntja community “We will cut down those signs, unless you show us the proof of us being what you describe on those signs.” summed it up.

  4. Just Me on 3rd April 2009 8:57 pm

    A democratic China is not impossible this century.

    Almost a dead cert within 20 years. Most of the political and cultural shift has already taken place behind the scenes in Beijing, and in the general population. It just has to fully play out in the formal, public political structure, which will happen when the next generation of leaders (those born in the 60s) get to the top.

  5. Cavitation on 4th April 2009 8:57 am

    I think this debate is a sign that the Liberal Party is trying to shore up its support with its core members, and especially with the older generation who are wedded to strong links with Britain and the USA and are wary of Australia’s growing links with Asia. Core Liberal voters, being biased towards the elderly, are decreasing. Perhaps playing the “British Empire” card is needed to keep their support. As we have seen with the Pauline Hanson episodes, these issues can motivate some people to being politically active. Yet this ploy will have negative connotations to younger people, and the middle classes, who have moved across to Rudd in a big way. I can only assume that Liberal Party polling is showing continuing erosion in their support, and so they are making an effort to hang on to the crusties, by pushing their hot buttons.

  6. Ric on 4th April 2009 12:36 pm

    Isn’t the point that when governments move into opposition, they must rally the supporters, including those who regard their own party’s most recent term as laced with failure and betrayal?

    I think sober heads would regard the 1998 election, for example, as a mistake for Labor because they thought they hadn’t really lost after all.

    Do the Anglos really still control Australia? I thought the symbolism of having Rudd and Wong in China was the defining phase of this government.

    Re Rudd’s linguistic talents – we are getting the proverbial five stages of grief, at first he was regarded as weird but now the idea of our PM talking to the Chinese in their own language and only some of the Australian population understanding it, is now causing anger among the media.

    Think of it – what’s important to your average journo is to be ‘in the know’. How could you be less ‘in the know’ and invalidating your own job, own life, than to have your PM running off and saying stuff you can’t understand.

    BTW, this is normal in most countries. It would not be any different from say the Thai PM speaking english to the foreign press.

Comments are closed.