30. Mar, 2022

Is Autocracy Trouncing Democracy?

A recent Quaffers Policy Forum explored the rise of China. Former ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, opened by observing that Australia sees China as a giant on the horizon, while China’s horizon looks much different, taking in the US, Europe, Russia and Africa. We are a small part of their wider landscape.
At this moment, China’s focus must be upon Russia. While China’s moral ambiguity over the invasion of the Ukraine is indefensible, Putin’s action will have embarrassed China. They will be studying every nuance with alarm, particularly the effect of western economic sanctions. China’s alliance with Russia is a relationship of convenience, and it has certainly been damaged.
In Australia, attitudes towards China range from appeasement to magnifying a threat. Both are simplistic. If China has a grand strategy, says Raby, it is rooted in past weakness, not strength, and conditioned by historical abuse at the hands of colonial hegemons and Japanese invaders. In 1949, China’s Communist Party had not inherited a nation, so much, as a mess. Historical incursions have so impacted its psyche that ‘territorial integrity’ is now at the core of China’s thinking and is a mindset shared by many of its people.
Canberra and the US think China is ‘over-reaching’, but Raby sees China as ‘a constrained Superpower’, whose territorial fixation is conditioned by external threats. Xi’s philosophy is not just that China should manage better, but that it should prosper. He has achieved that brilliantly. However, domestic consumption has risen so steeply that China is now heavily dependent upon imported resources. It thus sees the Straits of Malacca as a metaphorical boot on its throat - its sea-lanes - which the west could close in a heartbeat.
Participants agreed that China’s bad behaviour needed to be called out, but attacks on its soft power were a bit rich. America had projected soft power for years. Its McDonalds and rock music cultures are now global phenomena. China is simply playing by different rules – ones which don’t fit our western, Ricardian narrative. It has achieved self-reliance by doing things differently but has forgotten that a nation’s legitimacy depends on how other nations perceive its moral behaviour. China’s rogue behaviour has undermined the rules-based world order, which barely survives. WTO rules are routinely broken, multilateralism is fractured, and the UN is no longer a credible force.
There was universal agreement that we are witnessing the greatest, sharpest power shift in history’, making war between autocracy and democracy a real possibility and forcing nations to align with one of two emerging spheres of influence. There was little sense, therefore, in Australia standing alone instead of aligning with like-minded states. On issues like Huawei and Covid Australia had led with its chin was, which was crazy.
We agreed that both sides should act proportionately and tone down their rhetoric. There is significant upside for Australia in the relationship, but only in economic terms, which is not necessarily how China sees it. We are witnessing a classical, global power struggle and the west and must eventually accept the shift pragmatically and rebalance. Much of this will turn upon the outcome of the war in the Ukraine and whether the free world is able to discipline Russia.
Putin’s strident action has heightened discomfort with Xi’s lifelong Presidency, says Raby. China is a Diarchy of Party and State, in which power is negotiated, not absolute. Controlling the military is key, but the Communist Party is pragmatic and may make Xi a symbolic leader, like Mao, or create a power-sharing structure, with a President and a General Secretary. In respect of its ambitions towards Taiwan, sanctions against Russia may cause China to blink, in the short term, but not in the longer term. Appeasement is a risky strategy for the west because it allows China to continue burning coal, ignoring global trading rules and weakening rules-based institutions.
Australia would be best served by treading more carefully, reducing its supply chain dependence upon China and being less subservient to the US. The China issue should be managed pragmatically, rather than politically, but the blame for this politicisation is shared.  China’s Deputy Head of Mission had spoken over the head of his ambassador, with impunity. His demand that we change 14 policies was outrageous. China’s new ambassador speaks for himself and says he is committed to restoring relations. Let us see. Meanwhile, Australia needs to be less hairy chested. It is not equipped, politically or militarily, to react aggressively. If it has any muscle, it is economic, not political muscle.
In winding up the debate, the chair observed that there was an elephant in the room. Autocracy seemed to be trouncing democracy. China might trammel over human rights, but its autocracy was brutally efficient. We struggle with community consultation, environmental impact studies and other layers of bureaucracy, which weigh like sea anchors on our economic development, while China has no such constraints. “During the 18 years that one small Australian town has waited for a truck bypass, China has built 7 bullet trains, 3 cities, lifted 300 million out of poverty and doubled its port capacity”, he said. Democracy is clearly under-performing. Perhaps it needs a face-lift”.
Bruce Nicholls is the founding chair of the Quaffers public policy forums, with chapters in Sydney and Melbourne, and author of ‘The Plato Prophecy’ (about the emerging contest between democracy and autocracy).