Trumpism Down Under
SYDNEY — Thirty years ago, a colleague of mine in the British government who had ministerial responsibilities in Africa and Asia hung the world map in his office upside down. Placing what was then called the Third World at the top, he claimed, improved his understanding of those countries’ problems and perspectives. But, for the British, the real “down under”—the country you would reach if you turned the world on its head—is Australia.
Schoolchildren used to be taught that, if you dug a straight tunnel through the planet, Australia is where you would end up. Their seasons were the opposite of ours, as were the days—a point that was driven home when, in the early morning hours, we listened to cricket commentaries from Brisbane or Adelaide. While Britain slept, the Aussies played in the sunshine.
Australia is a beautiful and prosperous country, with a grand landscape and fine cities, most notably Sydney and Melbourne. It is a rumbustious democracy with a profound appreciation of the rule of law, a free and open society that has provided a haven for immigrants and refugees from all over the world. While its past treatment of its indigenous population has undoubtedly been problematic, it has had the courage and maturity to acknowledge unpleasant truths.
Yet this admirable country now faces an existential challenge. As Australia’s relationship with the United States comes under increasing strain, its political dynamics are becoming increasingly complex and perilous.
For decades, Australia has had a close partnership with the United States, not least in security terms. But, in his year since taking office, President Donald Trump has not only challenged ties with many of America’s traditional allies; he has also worked actively to undermine the systems of global and regional cooperation that the United States itself spearheaded and underwrote. He has reversed his predecessors’ hard-won progress in building relationships and striking mutually beneficial deals, including the Iran nuclear agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and the Paris climate agreement.
Contrary to Trump’s claims that his policies will “Make America Great Again,” he is deeply compromising his country’s role in the world. Long-standing allies regret that the United States, a country they have long admired, is now being steered by a mendacious, untrustworthy diplomatic arsonist.
This is bad news for Australia, which would clearly like to build a stronger partnership with regional powers that share its democratic values and interests, including India, Japan, and the United States. Such an alliance would not seek to contain China, but to ensure that it does not abuse its power and stoke regional tensions and instability.
Without a reliable regional counterweight, that is exactly what China seems eager to do. Like Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping has reversed many of his predecessors’ policies, including some of the market-oriented reforms pushed through by Deng Xiaoping. Having cultivated a Mao-style cult of personality, Xi proclaims that the time has come to “Make China Great Again.”
So foreign-policy restraint has gone out the window, and Xi has enabled the Communist Party of China to reassert its control over the economy. Free enterprise is now once again subordinated to the public sector. The “communist united front” has been let off its leash.
Every communist regime since the Russian Revolution of 1917 has sought to use the “united front” to extend the power of the party, both at home and abroad, in ways that may be subtle or overt, but are invariably underhanded. Today’s Chinese united front is no exception, and Australia is one of the countries that is being targeted.
Australia has strong economic ties with China, which buys much of what it mines and grows. For its own part, China has exported money and people to Australia, from the business world to academia. Most Chinese in Australia, some of whom regard their new home as a haven from repression and corruption, have become enthusiastic Australians with a proud Chinese heritage.
But a few Chinese in Australia have allowed themselves to become foot soldiers of China’s Leninist (not really communist) dictatorship, manipulated by Chinese diplomats and a few businessmen. The effects of their activities can be seen in the conduct of foreign policy and in attempts to mobilize votes against the government.
Now Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s administration has responded to this activity, introducing legislation that bans foreign donations to political parties and activist groups, including some charities, and requires former politicians, lobbyists, and executives working for foreign interests to register if they are to be involved in Australian politics. The move is explicitly intended to prevent foreign—and, specifically, Chinese—interference in Australia’s democratic life.
Turnbull’s crackdown on foreign interference in domestic politics amounts to a bold attempt to strengthen Australia’s position in the global South. The country, Turnbull is making clear, is prepared to be a friend to China, but it will not be bullied or manipulated.
A united front of democracies would certainly help get that point across. But, beyond failing to support Australia, Trump’s antics are actually undermining Turnbull’s effort. Australia, like so many other traditional allies, surely yearns for the day when Trump, with his crude and self-defeating nationalism, can no longer harm his own country and others. Project Syndicate
* * *
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.