'Soft power' and China's influence in Australia

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As sensitivities over the South China Sea issue and foreign investment remain unresolved, Professor  of the The Conversation discusses the effectiveness of China's "soft power" influence in Australia.

THERE ARE SOME rather remarkable aspects of the increasingly heated debate about China’s influence in Australia.

First, the idea that China actually has any “soft power” to exert is actually rather surprising. Soft power, after all, is something that has generally been associated with our cousins in the U.S. — not “Communist China”.

When Joseph Nye popularised the concept of soft power, he had in mind the sorts of persuasive and pervasive influences that come from attraction, not coercion.

One of the reasons American hegemony has proved so enduring, despite its recent economic, political and strategic problems, is that many people around the world actually like the U.S. and what it notionally stands for.

Even in the Middle East, where many people may loathe American foreign policy, large numbers would jump at the chance of moving to the U.S. given the chance. There’s something about American lifestyles and values that is inherently appealing — even if they are conspicuously absent in actual practice at times.

China has no such attributes. On the contrary, many think of China as overcrowded, polluted, authoritarian and an increasingly destabilising force in the region it is once again coming to dominate. In such circumstances, winning friends and influencing people understandably looks like a good and necessary idea.

Yet the second striking feature of the current debate is how uneven it is. It is absolutely not necessary to be anti-American to be struck by the fact that China’s degree of institutionalised influence in Australia is much less extensive and – even more importantly – much less effective than that enjoyed by the United States.

Australia’s relationship with the U.S., especially its critically important strategic dimension, is institutionalised at the highest levels of government. The annual Australia–U.S. Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) talks – originally established by the Hawke Government – are the quintessential example of this process.

The Australian American Leadership Dialogue (AALD), set up by prominent businessman Phillip Scanlan, provides another key venue for relationships to be built and views to be exchanged amongst sympathetic elites form both countries. Former ALP senator and participant Stephen Loosley describes this gathering and the access it provides to prominent U.S. political and business leaders as 'the envy of other Western countries'.

These institutions are a key part of a socialisation process that reinforces a particular worldview. Significantly, critics or those with unsympathetic ideas are conspicuous by their absence at such gatherings. It is not just the dangers of groupthink that are significant here — it is that there is no real parallel to such institutionalised relationships with other countries and certainly not with China.

There may be good reasons for privileging strategic and other ties with the U.S. — it has been our principal strategic partner since the second world war, after all. But the institutional depth of such ties gives the U.S. an apparent inevitability and naturalness that is rarely questioned.

When the Howard Government established the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University in 2006 with a $25 million endowment, there was remarkably little comment,  despite its fairly obvious “soft power” role at the height of the Bush administration’s unpopular war in Iraq.

My own university, University of Western Australia (UWA), hosts a similar, more recently established institution, which actually does excellent work and tolerates – even encourages – a variety of viewpoints. Bob Carr spoke recently, for example.

When universities are increasingly strapped for cash and must find money where they can, these sorts of organisations are potentially invaluable, not least for attracting luminaries who might otherwise never head west.

UWA also has a Confucius Institute, but it is much less prominent and, seemingly, far less visited. Interestingly, I gave a talk there a year or so ago and no-one questioned the topic or the content, which was fairly critical of Chinese policy.

If the Confucius Institutes are really supposed to be promoting the interests of the Chinese state, they are not doing a terribly good job and lag behind their American rivals by a considerable distance.

The comparative ineffectiveness of the Confucius Institutes as agents of soft power may help to explain why some Chinese elites have sought to exert a more direct influence over the political process in this country. It is hard to see how this is a good idea in a notionally independent country like Australia, whichever foreign nationals or country are providing the largesse or trying to wield the influence.

And this is the point, of course. If Australia is ever to develop an independent foreign policy position that actually reflects the interests of the people of this country, then there’s a case to be made for not getting too cozy with any other country, no matter how culturally aligned some of us might like to think we are.

It’s bad enough that powerful domestic interests are able to buy political influence in this country; even worse if they are not even “ours”.

 is professor of international politics at the University of Western Australia. This article was originally published on The Conversation


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