President Trump’s combative phone call with Australia’s prime minister and his rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal
have left many Australians wondering whether it is time to pay less attention to the United States and engage more with China.
Stephen FitzGerald, Australia’s first ambassador to China, delivered a speech in March that amplified that debate,
arguing the world had reached the end of an era defined by European and American leadership.
He called on Australia to make China its primary focus of diplomacy and economic policy and to “implant in our education the study of China and Chinese.”
“We are living in a Chinese world,” he said.
“But we don’t have a relationship to match it.”
Dr. FitzGerald’s comments — delivered as part of a popular lecture series known as the Gough Whitlam Oration,
named after the prime minister who sent Dr. FitzGerald to China in 1973 —
reflect a view that has been gaining momentum in Australia for years, but especially so since Trump’s victory.
After decades of Australia sidling up to the United States, sharing intelligence and fighting alongside the US in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan,
many Australians in the foreign policy and economic establishment are now questioning
what some have come to describe as a complacent favoritism for American priorities in the region.
Dr. FitzGerald, an esteemed figure in Australia whose comments on China are always closely parsed, seemed especially eager to seize on Trump’s rise to argue for a shift in focus.
In his remarks, at Western Sydney University, he said Trump both threatened the old order and provided “a moment of opportunity”
in which Australia could become more independent of Washington
and develop the kinds of ties to Beijing that would allow Australia to moderate China’s behavior in the region.
He did not hold back on what he hoped Australia could affect:
Dr. FitzGerald explicitly criticized China’s anti-democratic tendencies,
calling out the way it seeks to influence Australian politics through investments and campaign contributions.
He also condemned China’s efforts to control information and opinions within Australia’s Chinese community.
Noting that the Chinese government or its affiliates “now have near-monopoly control of Australia’s Chinese-language print and broadcast media,”
Dr. FitzGerald made clear that China’s controlling tendencies were a challenge to Australia’s democratic values.
Still, he maintained that there was only one way to manage the problem:
by being “close enough to have voice and influence in Beijing.”
Experts in Chinese-Australian relations who largely agreed with Dr. FitzGerald’s approach said that
this element of his argument would inevitably raise eyebrows, and hackles, even more than his comments about Trump.
“These remarks are the one of the strongest articulations yet of one strand in the Australian debate — that we should accept a Chinese-led order in Asia,”
said Prof. Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University.
“But there are also firm views within Australia to the contrary. How does Australia protect its interests and its sovereignty against Chinese power and influence?”
Alan Dupont, a China analyst and fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, said that
Dr. FitzGerald’s speech, while well reasoned, reflected the views of a lifelong Sinophile who had overestimated Australia’s ability to affect China’s behavior.
“The bottom line is only large countries influence other large countries,” he said.
“I think he’s overestimating the potential to influence China.”
He added that Dr. FitzGerald did not take into account China’s possible fragility,
or the degree to which Australians and Americans shared common values of openness and democracy,
forming the basis of an alliance that went beyond geopolitics.
“Whatever you may think of Donald Trump’s values or lack of them,
Donald Trump is not the United States of America,” Dupont said.
“As a country and a society, do we have more in common with U.S.? I think the answer is yes.”