Written by Mark Beeson.

China’s not happy. Normally that sort of phrase is pretty meaningless. Clearly not everyone in China has the same view on anything – with the possible exception of its territorial claims in the South China Sea. This is why China’s policymakers and commentariat are so peeved about the declarations emerging from the AUSMIN talks between Australia and the US in Boston.

According to the ABC, Chinese officials have accused Australia and the US of “adding fuel to the flames” with their criticism of China’s reclamation efforts in the South China Sea and their joint promise to sail through what are increasingly contested waters.

At one level China’s response is ritualistic: its foreign policy officials cannot have been entirely surprised about either the US’ determination to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, or about Australia’s willingness to offer support.

At another level, however, perhaps China has been taken aback by Australia’s apparent willingness to play an active, visible and – from a Chinese perspective, at least – rather provocative role supporting the US. Australia’s role is, after all, entirely symbolic and designed to make a statement about where its strategic priorities lie.

There may be much to be said for ensuring that freedom of navigation is maintained in the region to our north through which so much of our trade passes. Whether it’s obviously in Australia’s interests to take this sort of high-profile initiative is another question given that this is an issue that is ultimately likely to be resolved by the US and China in one way or another.

Although the polite fiction is that Australia doesn’t have to choose between the US and China, actions like this suggest that perhaps we do. Or to be pedantically accurate, perhaps our political leaders and strategic thinkers believe we do, which amounts to the same thing in foreign policy terms.

There would seem to be an emerging strategic calculus that is based on the assumption that it is possible to side with China on economic matters while supporting America’s geopolitical ambitions. After heated debates within the Abbott cabinet, for example, Australia belatedly supported China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, despite apparent requests not to do so from Barack Obama himself. If the Australian navy is deployed in support of the US in the South China Sea this will represent a very tangible balancing of the ledger.

Why would Australia’s foreign and defence policy officials think this was a good idea when they must have known it was going to induce high levels of irritation on the part of our single biggest trading partner? Paradoxically, perhaps people do and don’t make a difference.

It’s important to remember that this is Team Turnbull’s first big foreign policy foray. We’ve not only got a new prime minister, but we’ve also got a new defence minister too. Perhaps it is especially important for both Malcolm Turnbull and Marise Payne to look suitably tough when dealing with China in particular.

As Australia’s first female defence minister Payne will be under particular pressure to “man up” to the Chinese. Turnbull is also a bit suspect in some eyes as, in the past, he’s taken a view of Australia-China relations that for some observers in his own party and the defence establishment is too nuanced by half. History suggests the hardheads have little to worry about.

It is remarkable how people’s views seem to change in office. There is a striking consistency across both the major parties when they are actually in power and responsible for national security. Malcolm Fraser is perhaps the quintessential example of a former prime minister who was orthodox in office, but wildly unconventional – in foreign policy terms, at least – afterwards.

Paul Keating and Bob Carr are also examples of policymakers who have changed their tune when they were no longer actually responsible for policy. While the rest of us might not relish adventurous and experimental foreign policymaking, it rather presumes that the extant policy settings are the right ones. When it comes to dealing with China it’s far from obvious that this is the case.

It has become something of a cliché to observe that we live in tumultuous times when the old order seems to be changing – or possibly disappearing – before our eyes. One thing we can say with confidence though is that whatever happens in our region, China is going have a big influence in determining it. It’s not obvious that sending in a gunboat is the best way to respond to this new reality.

But if Australian and American policy looks like something out of the 19th century, China’s is no better. We may have hoped old-fashioned land grabs were a relic of the past. Plainly, some things never go out of style. If ever there was a moment for a bit of Turnbull-esque “21st-century government”, this is it.

Mark Beeson is a Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia. This article first appeared on The Conversation and can be found here. Image credit: CC by Ash Carter DOD/Flickr.

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