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Opinion

Time for Australia's campaigning leaders to debate China?

Politicians avoid arousing voter concern despite Huawei and South China Sea disputes

The first two leaders' debates of the campaign between Scott Morrison, left, and his challenger Bill Shorten did not discuss foreign policy at all.   © Getty Images

The top levels of government, academia and business in Australia have been possessed for years by talk about how China is upending the geo-strategic order that has anchored the region since the end of the 1941-45 Pacific War.

But on the campaign trail ahead of a national election of May 18, the prospect of a new regional order headed by an authoritarian state ruthless about enforcing its interests has scarcely raised its head. Instead of intense debate, there has been an almost deathly silence.

The first two leaders' debates of the campaign, between the conservative Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and his challenger, Labor leader, Bill Shorten, did not discuss foreign policy at all.

Instead, the arcana of the Australian tax system, and its complex treatment of real estate and share dividends, dominated the proceedings, along with climate change. China was barely mentioned.

There is little prospect of diplomacy rushing to the fore in the final two weeks of the campaign, as Marise Payne, the Foreign Minister, has declined to even debate with her counterpart, Labor's Penny Wong.

When Paul Keating, the former Labor prime minister, said the heads of the intelligence services needed to be "cleaned out" to improve China policy, his colleagues refused to back him and immediately shut the issue down.

The lack of campaign debate is a stark contrast to the last one to two years of sustained and intense policymaking in national security, with battles aplenty.

Australia has engaged China in a sometimes bitter debate on issues of political interference and on Beijing's expansive and assertive island building program in the South China Sea. At the same time, it has watched with alarm U.S. President Donald Trump's assault on the American governing and alliance system, while offering two cheers for his tough-on-China policy.

In response to the unending of the regional order, Australia has announced a new program of diplomatic and military engagement in the Pacific of dimensions not seen since World War II.

Along with the U.S., Australia is building a new naval base on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and, with Japan and New Zealand, has committed to a huge aid project to bring electricity to 70% of the residents of the sprawling Melanesian state.

Defence spending is also rising. The current government has lifted spending on defense to 1.93% of gross domestic product, putting the country on track to reach 2% -- the NATO target -- by 2020/2021. Labor has publicly committed to the same 2% goal, something that the party failed to reach when it was last in office.

If it wins the election, as it is expected to do, Labor will have to decide whether to proceed with the 50 billion- Australian-dollar contract with France for new submarines, one of the largest defense deals ever signed by Canberra.

On the home front, the Australian Parliament passed legislation squarely aimed at combating outside interference in local politics, as well as expanding the definition of espionage and banning political donations from foreigners. Although unstated, the target of the new laws was China.

With so much at stake, then, why have the politicians been so mute on national security on the campaign trail?

In part, this is because foreign policy has long largely been bipartisan, so the two major parties don't always have a lot to fight about. On tax and budget policy, by contrast, the gulf is huge.

Another reason is that having just had such an open and bitter falling out with China, over the interference allegations and last year banning of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company, from Australia's new fifth-generation mobile network, Canberra is not in the mood for another public brawl.

Australian coal exports to China have been delayed or blocked in retaliation for the Huawei ban.   © Imaginechina/AP

It is one thing to pick a fight with your biggest trading partner, which China is by a large margin, taking about a third of Australia's exports. Reviving a fight when you have already adopted a series of tough measures is probably ill-advised. Australian coal exports to China have already been delayed and in some cases blocked this year, in apparent retaliation for the Huawei ban.

Whoever wins this election, Canberra is braced for more economic measures from Beijing. In the meantime, the Morrison government, which is focused acutely on its political survival, does not want to pre-emptively bring on extra problems in the meantime.

But there is another obstacle to a vigorous debate on foreign policy, and that is the chaotic state of politics in Australia in recent years, which has seen five prime ministers hold office in six years. If Bill Shorten wins, it will be six prime ministers in six years.

The high turnover has been immensely damaging to Australian diplomacy, with prime ministers having little time to build all-important personal relationships before they are shunted unceremoniously off the stage.

The three countries most important to Australia in Asia, China, Japan and Indonesia, have all enjoyed stable leadership in recent years. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quickly become friends with Tony Abbott. Likewise, Indonesian President Joko Widodo liked Malcolm Turnbull. In his early days in office, Kevin Rudd, a Chinese speaker, had the beginnings of a good relationship with the then vice-president Xi. But in the end, the value of these relationships was thrown out by the revolving door of Australian politics.

The most simple explanation for the absence of debate in the election, though, and perhaps the most worrisome as well, is that the public is not overly interested in one. Parochial and perhaps a touch complacent, Australian voters expect their leaders to manage relations with foreign powers without much oversight. In the past half century, it has usually taken a war, in Vietnam or Iraq, before they start voting on issues beyond the country's shores.

Put another way, although the elites may be switched onto the China challenge, the broader public isn't, apart from fretting about how Chinese buyers might be pushing up home prices.

Sooner or later, that will change. One wonders whether the public will then blame the politicians then, for not sounding the alarm louder, and earlier.

Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney.

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