Security or progress? The Australian experiment

Security or progress? The Australian experiment

As Australia firmly shuts its doors against Chinese influence, analysts should be on the lookout for the long-term effects of turning down advanced technologies and angering a rising superpower. While China has been spreading its influence around the globe through aiding in economic development plans or providing technical and technological support, countries constantly find themselves having to make the tough choice between progress through cooperating with China and sense of national security against it. Australia, as a key balancer against China in the Asia-Pacific region, could teach the world on how to deal with the Chinese influence, or show us the consequences of edging this influence out.  

Closing doors

Australia suspects China of influencing its domestic politics, and not without valid reasons. The two countries have suffered chilly relations since December 2017 when the Turnbull administration proposed measures aimed at limiting foreign influence in Australian politics. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has repeatedly insisted that the proposal does not specifically target any country; however, the earlier scandal and security breach involving ex-Labour Senator Sam Dastyari and an Australian-Chinese businessman directly prompted the move, leaving China defensive. The concern over foreign influence rose again in late June this year, when think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute reported that Chinese telecommunications conglomerate Huawei had sponsored the most overseas trips for federal politicians: a total 12 out of 55 since 2010. With by-elections coming up on 28 July and fears of election interference remaining high, Parliament had to act fast. Canberra passed the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill and Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill on 28 June.

Canberra cannot blatantly shut out China due to the sensitive nature of their economic relationship. Almost immediately after the measures against foreign influence were introduced, the Chinese Embassy in Australia blamed Australian politicians for damaging “mutual trust” and complained of growing anti-Chinese sentiment. Since then, China has reportedly denied visas to multiple Australian businesspeople and journalists. Similarly, Australian wine exports to China have sustained a slower customs process, and local cattle and citrus farmers have complained of inequitable treatment. In an attempt to save the bilateral relationship, Minister for Trade Steven Ciobo insisted that the foreign interference bill is not targeted at China, but it is likely that the relations between these two countries and their record-high bilateral trade value are in danger.

However, Australia can continue to edge Chinese influence out of alternative sectors. Huawei has become a main target of suspicious governments looking to restrain Chinese influence. The world’s largest telecommunications manufacturer faces particular pushback from the US, which regularly warns its allies about Huawei’s opaque management structure that may include ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Huawei Australia’s chairman has repeatedly denied any sort of connection, but Beijing’s notoriously long reach over Chinese companies – such as a Communist Party committee within Huawei – leaves the rest of the world skeptical. In an attempt to prevent national security risks posed by the Chinese, Australia has taken extraordinary measures. Earlier in June, they blocked Huawei out of a deal with the Solomon Islands to establish a 2,500-mile, high speed underwater internet cable despite a 2016 promise made between the islands and Huawei. Australia is also likely to keep Huawei out of plans to build the country’s new 5G network, and may turn to European firms such as Ericsson and Nokia. On the soft power front, critics have been centering their attention to Confucius Institutes, state-affiliated Chinese language and culture organizations at university campuses worldwide. Under public pressure, the New South Wales government was forced to review the content of the program.

The persistent dilemma

The outcome of Australia’s decisions will pose a challenge for other Western countries struggling to find the balance between national security or progress. Australia has valid grounds for treating Huawei and China as a security threat, but it could lose out strategically, economically, and technologically. Anti-Chinese policies could further exacerbate tensions in the South China Sea, especially as Australia continues to conduct “freedom of navigation” missions through the region.

Beijing could respond by escalating military buildup on the contested islands and increasing the risk of conflict in the area. Economically, China has already proven that it is not afraid to use its buying power – or lack thereof – to undermine interests of another country. It could encourage another boycott campaign similar to that against South Korean brands, which crippled large firms such as Lotte and Hyundai in response to America’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense to South Korea. Furthermore, shutting Huawei out of Australia could result not only in slower or pricier 5G internet service, but also a slowdown in technological development overall.


While Australia is unlikely to immediately suffer any of these consequences, the long-term result could force other Western countries – particularly those used to avoiding China at all costs – to look for a new modus operandi . Countries have valid concerns over China’s rise and seemingly endless technological and financial offers; however, it is likely that there won’t be many better options in the next five to eight years.

The search for a balance between sense of security and continuous progress will continue, but has now bled over into those countries that have been dedicated to containing the rise of China.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Kiana Mendoza

Kiana Mendoza is China-based consultant who has worked with firms from Shanghai to London, but remains proud of her California roots. She graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in International Relations and Asian Studies and specializes in US-China relations, Chinese foreign policy, and national security.