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Should we have backed off? Is this chest-beating by Australia a dreadful mistake?

So far, we’ve been on a steep learning curve trying to understand the thinking in Beijing. Now, we must struggle to comprehend the thinking in Canberra, and decide whether this aggressive posturing complete with nuclear subs is the right strategic move.

Chris Flynn has worked on these and related issues in more than 65 countries. A lawyer, he advises governments and private clients on energy, energy security and international law. To do that well involves understanding how countries approach these issues.

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Video Transcript

Peter Wilkinson:

So, Chris, everything at the moment is about escalating China, and that inevitably leads to either war or somebody blinks. Is China, the blinking kind?

Christopher Flynn:

You would have to say, at the moment, that it doesn’t appear that China or the West are the blinking kind.

Peter Wilkinson:

So how do you think Southeast Asia is feeling about all this? Because they’re very much the meat in the sandwich in all this. And from what I read, most of the Southeast Asian countries really don’t like China, but then they’re not too wrapped in Australia either.

Christopher Flynn:

One of the things that we should bear in mind though, is that many of our neighbours have deep experience, cultural experience and historical experience dealing with China as the regional power. And I think we can expect to see that those countries will assume a position in their international relations that is consistent with that knowledge, that deep historical and cultural knowledge. Australia doesn’t have that knowledge as a modern nation. We are younger and we’ve grown up under one or other of the wings of the world’s great superpowers of the time that we’ve been a modern country. And so, we’re learning a very different lesson.

Peter Wilkinson:

So, what does that mean? That the countries to our north are more cautious of us than they are of China to their north?

Christopher Flynn:

Well, I think it means two things. Firstly, there’s a deep history of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, as they see it, and that’s quite a conservative doctrine in Asia. That’s the first thing. But secondly, yes, there is a caution and third, the structure of international relations and international law is very different. We tend to look at it from a very Western perspective because that’s where we come from, this idea that countries are equal before the law, at least nominally, in international relations. Chinese concepts of international relations, there is a hierarchy and China sits in the middle of it or at the top of it rather, and your position in the hierarchy is determined by your cultural, political, and economic proximity to China.

Peter Wilkinson:

Presumably cleverer folks and folks who are more invested in this in Canberra have thought all this through. I’m always interested in looking at the strategies that people employ, and often in politics, there aren’t any, except to win the next election. But in this case, it may be different. And you can’t help noticing that Marise Payne and Peter Dutton had just done a spin through Indonesia, India, and South Korea on their way to the United States, just before this announcement about the nuke subs and the increased sharing of technology a couple of days ago. So, do you think that the government in Canberra has actually been strategic about this?

Christopher Flynn:

Well, I’m sure they’ve been very, very strategic about the decision that they’ve made. It is a momentous strategic decision, probably the most important strategic decision in terms of our defence posture, since the end of World War II, but whether that’s-

Peter Wilkinson:

But actually, I phrased that badly. Do you think they have thought this through to the extent that maybe starting with the Marise Payne pulling the Chinese on about the investigation into Wuhan? Because there is a logical series of escalations if you like, because all of this requires a massive education process, not just for the Australian public, but for the Indians, for the Indonesians, for everybody else in the region. To get their idea around this AUKUS concept is a big mind shift.

Christopher Flynn:

That’s a good point, Wilko. But I think that the messaging, and I would suspect, and obviously we can’t know, the details about the announcement that we heard weren’t shared with anyone. One would expect that that’s the case. New Zealand said it was not informed. And if New Zealand wasn’t informed, we can imagine pretty much, no one else would have been informed.

Peter Wilkinson:

Yeah. See, there’s this Sun Tzu saying from The Art of War, that the battle is won before it’s fought. And I’m just wondering if people haven’t been thinking this through. How do we actually beat the Chinese at their own game?

Christopher Flynn:

One of the things that democracies have obviously, is a certain amount of moral authority. And although it takes them longer to warm up to a struggle, once they’re engaged in it, they do tend to see it through, a proper struggle, the struggles that we saw in the first half of the 20th century. I’m more concerned around timing, in the same way, that some of the other commentators have. The problem with democracies is that that process takes time because it’s a process that involves necessarily building a democratic consensus.

Peter Wilkinson:

If you were strategizing then, if AUKUS, this united front with the Yanks and the Poms, if this has happened in the last few days, I wonder what happens next. Of course, it means Americans coming here and war games and all that kind of stuff, but that alone won’t stave off China, because what we need to do is force China to blink.

Christopher Flynn:

We can expect, I think, as China becomes the largest source of institutional capital in the region… It’s already the biggest trading partner of every country in the region, it’s already the biggest source of savings in the region, so the next step is to become the biggest source of institutional capital. As China becomes the biggest source of institutional capital-

Peter Wilkinson:

What do you mean, institutional capital?

Christopher Flynn:

The big licks of money that are lent to countries or their banks, is institutional capital, effectively, the real grease in the international financial system. As China becomes the biggest source of that, we can’t expect China to act any differently with respect to those funds or that capital, than the Americans and the British acted when they were the biggest sources of institutional capital in the system. And that is to say that China will seek to set the rules for access to its capital.

Peter Wilkinson:

Yeah. So that’s what they’re going to do. So, what is AUKUS going to do next? Because I mean, for instance, one thing they could do is start de-stabilising China internally, by talking about the problems with somebody who rules the roost, the corruption at the top, the amount of money that President Xi’s no doubt socking away, et cetera, et cetera, the things that undermine autocracies.

Christopher Flynn:

Well, that’s an interesting point. Those sorts of operations that we saw, perhaps with Radio Free Europe in the cold war, are probably more difficult to undertake today. One suspects that the ability for Western countries to be able to do that on scale through the internet and social media in China is much more limited than setting up a radio station in Eastern Europe and broadcasting the Beatles and other messages to citizens of the Soviet Union.

Peter Wilkinson:

Yeah. I mean, so far, the Western strategy has been defensive. We’ve done this because the Chinese have done something. I’m just wondering if we don’t poke the bear somehow, by going on the offensive to try and topple President Xi and replace him with some of the moderates who are apparently sitting in the wings in Beijing.

Christopher Flynn:

It’s an interesting question, Wilko. It’s difficult to see how that could happen, given the degree, the centrality of control of the Chinese Communist Party and the centrality of President Xi’s position in China. But one would assume that there are some things that the West needs to ensure, remain more or less to the extent they can, the status quo, that is freedom of navigation within the South China Sea. And I think we can see that that’s becoming quite an important issue. So, if there’s going to be a flashpoint in the immediate term, potentially Taiwan, but probably I think if China were to do something, but there’s a question over the South China Sea.

Peter Wilkinson:

Chris Flynn, thank you so much. Very interesting, very stressful. Interesting to watch what happens next.

Christopher Flynn:

Thanks, Wilko.

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