Australia-China Relations and the Politics of Canberra’s Submarine Deal

If there is one image that Canberra has been able to consistently maintain in its foreign policy, it is the Machiavellian dictum that we are a species, ‘fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain’. In a shift from the previous best-of-friends relationship between former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has declared that Australia’s submarine contract will go not to Tokyo, but to Paris. Chinese media outlets have mused that Australia has necessarily swung back to the economic teat of the Chinese market; the announcement coming as it did on the back of a trip by Turnbull to Beijing. [1]

The shift of the submarine tender from Japan to France can be considered a big win for Chinese foreign policy; if the perception of solidarity with the US consensus in the South China Seas is of any concern. While Beijing is predisposed to view any military upgrade in Australian naval forces, strategically, as a growing appendage of the American 7th Fleet, the threat of 12 new submarines to Beijing’s maritime security is likely not to be taken too seriously. Currently, only half of Australia’s six submarines are manned. The lack of naval personnel for submarine duty is not likely to grow any time soon. What is significant for Beijing rather is the reaffirmation by Canberra that economic instability and political insecurity is likely to continue to drive Australian defence policy, as opposed to security related needs.

According to one Australian news outlet, the decision to go with France, as opposed to the Japanese, was based on the need to placate an increasingly volatile job market. The French tender in this sense fills the need for Australian jobs, a market for Australian steel and, more pointedly, a need for securing votes in the increasingly job-poor industry sector of South Australia. [2] That the submarines are to be rolled out over a period of forty years serves to reinforce the rationale that the government must spend its money on creating jobs rather than on any perceived need for greater maritime security. In a political climate where Ministerial longevity is non-existent and policies are guided by political expediency, could the decision be anything but an economic one?

In China, the question of a new ‘pro-China’ turn within the Turnbull government has gained a certain traction in media speculation. The association between Turnbull and China is a standing one that can be linked, it has been argued, to an increasing consciousness within the Australian government of the importance of China to Australia; beginning with former Labour Prime Minster Kevin Rudd. [3] While lacking in Rudd’s Mandarin speaking abilities, Turnbull’s China connection has become similarly well-celebrated. Successful past China-business ventures have gained Turnbull a respect in China for his business acumen. But it is Turnbull’s son’s marriage to a Chinese national that has garnered him attention in China as a China-connected proponent of the Australian government. Turnbull’s decision to go with French submarine contractor DCNS is likely to raise the ‘pro-China’ view among Chinese pundits.

But the question remains as much in Australian media as it does in China: how will Turnbull navigate the divide between the US-Australian security relationship and the Sino-Australian economic one? And more significantly, will he be around long enough to do so?

For the time being, any chance of a more pro-China policy in the Turnbull government is considered to be unlikely. The Chinese have learnt that knowing China (知华) and having a cultural connection with China is not the same as being pro-china (亲华) in foreign policy. [4] Beijing learnt that lesson from Kevin Rudd. The expectation is then that Turnbull will continue to support American foreign policy as Canberra has in the past, albeit with less muscular provocation than Abbott. What will be different is the extent to which Turnbull attaches Australian economic interests to Chinese growth.

While Turnbull is constrained to balancing Australia’s US and China relationships, ongoing political discord in Australian is set to increasingly favour a more pro-China future. Turnbull has Australia set to go to an early election in July which could very well end in a new government, and/or Prime Minister; the result of which will make it seven Prime Ministers in nine years. Recent polls show Turnbull markedly down in the polls, yet equally significant is that neither is the opposition leader political secure. If political instability in Canberra is defined by economic insecurity in Australia, trade with China, as opposed to military security with America, is likely to continue to define how Canberra views its defence policy.


[1] http://www.guancha.cn/military-affairs/2016_04_26_358273.shtml

[2] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-27/barnes-what-are-the-submarines-really-protecting/7361554

[3] http://www.guancha.cn/Cen-Shao-Yu/2015_09_18_334705.shtml

[4] http://military.china.com/critical3/27/20150924/20460201.html

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Adam Bartley is a Researcher and PhD candidate at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bartley.aa@gmail.com

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