Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s speech on China, given Tuesday at the University of New South Wales, has attracted a lot of media attention. It’s no secret that Australia is suspicious of China’s regional ambitions, or that Australia is trying to roll back Chinese influence in the region. Yet the Sydney Morning Herald has described the speech as “conciliatory.” The Australian Financial Review claimed that Turnbull had used the speech to “reset” Australia-China relations. China’s Foreign Ministry took to the speech like a moth to a flame, expressing appreciation for Turnbull’s “positive remarks.”
The tone of Turnbull’s speech was certainly polite – solicitous even. The prime minister made it clear that Canberra wants a relationship with China that is based on mutual respect and understanding. Turnbull also downplayed the notion that conflict with China is inevitable, saying those who think it is will only wreck the mutual interests of all Indo-Pacific nations.
The problem with this narrative about Turnbull’s speech is that nothing was reconciled. His remarks were hardly the basis for a reset of Australia-China relations. The reality is much more complex. Turnbull said Australia’s main goal was “to advance Australia’s prosperity, to ensure the independence of our decision-making, and secure the safety and freedom of our people.” Crucially, this must be done in the context of “an international order based on the rule of law” where “the sovereignty of all nations is respected.” At no point in his speech did he relent in opposing China’s militarization of the South China Sea or its encroachment on Australia’s sphere of influence.
These, then, are not the statements of a man in search of reconciliation. They are a plainspoken articulation of Australia’s geopolitical interests.
To advance Australian prosperity, Canberra must pursue an economic relationship with China. Trade is the lifeblood of the Australian economy, and Australia has no more important trade partner than China. Last year, 30 percent of Australian exports and 22 percent of Australia’s imports went to or came from China. This economist interest means that no matter how unhappy Australia is about Chinese encroachment into the South Pacific, it must engage China more pragmatically than most countries do. Australia can’t avoid China; it can only establish its red lines and try to persuade China to respect them.
This is easier said than done, of course, and it’s why Turnbull said the safety and freedom of a sovereign Australia was paramount. It is, therefore, more important to focus not on what officials like Turnbull say, but on what Australia does, like leading a new security framework in the South Pacific, denouncing China’s attempts to lure nearby countries into its debt trap, and investing billions over the next decade to modernize its army. Canberra knows that in any bilateral relationship, mutual respect and understanding comes as much from strength as from decorum.
It’s in this context that his middle point should be interpreted. Sure, Australia wants to “ensure the independence of [its] decision-making,” but this is the dream of all nations. Every country believes its fate should lie in the collective willpower of its people, not in the power of uncontrollable external forces. Australia has always abdicated a degree of its independence by relying on a security patron – first the United Kingdom, now the United States. But allegiance isn’t subservience, and the United States’ recent protectionist trade policies, not to mention its shaky commitment to the institutions of the “international order” Turnbull cited in his speech, make even this most stalwart of U.S. allies both nervous and indignant. To the extent possible, Australia will seek to defend that order – whether from Chinese territorial ambition or U.S. ambivalence.
Australia will be friendly to China only as far as China’s regional ambitions allow. For now, with China contained abroad and preoccupied with economic issues at home, there is room for pragmatism at the bilateral level. Canberra and Beijing may even harbor hope that that will always be the case. Eternal as hope may spring, though, Australia cannot change the fact that it depends on China for trade and on the United States for security. And that’s exactly what Turnbull said in his speech.