Australia and the Chinese Challenge: The Perspective of Brendan Sargeant


By Robbin Laird

Recently, I continued my discussion with Brendan Sargeant, the well-known and well-regarded Australian strategist about how best to understand the challenge posed by the regime of President Xi to Australia and the Indo-Pacific region. We focused on how he would characterize the nature and focus of the strategy of the Xi regime as a Communist Authoritarian state and then focused on how Australia was responding to this strategy. This raised the question then of how the allies of Australia, notably the United States, and Europe and most significantly the states of the Indo-Pacific were responding to the Xi regime policies and strategy.

It became clear in the discussion that Europe and the United States have a golden opportunity to work with the Indo-Pacific states and to take advantage of Australian initiatives to provide a clear counterstrategy to Xi and his authoritarian regime. Europe otherwise known as the European Commission wishes for a geopolitical role. It is difficult to see how embracing an authoritarian regime with global reach and ambitions as Xi’s China provides more than legitimization and support to Chinese policy, rather than seizing the opportunity to work with the Indo-Pacific states working to counter the Chinese strategy as shaped and executed by Xi’s government.

We started by discussing Chinese strategy and how Sargeant viewed that strategy as formulated and executed by Xi’s regime.

“What is China’s strategy? What are they seeking to achieve? What do the actions that they are taking actually mean?

“I think that China’s fundamental goals are straightforward. They don’t try and hide them. The first key element is the role and dominance of the Communist Party. The Communist Party is the foundation of the contemporary Chinese state, and the legitimacy and political survival of the Communist Party is the overriding strategic priority for the current leadership. This perspective drives much of China’s internal and external policy.

“With regard to how they present themselves to the world, Taiwan is a challenge to the legitimacy of the governing model that the Chinese Communists have developed. It is quite a significant challenge, as was Hong Kong, because it presents an alternative Chinese model to that of Communist Party dominance. It is an alternative that is more powerful in the context of the Communist Party’s refusal to acknowledge its own history and to deal with some of the  terrible things that they have been responsible for.

“To be clear we are not friends with Xi’s China. We are not partners. These are not useful terms to characterize the relationship. We must deal with China, but we always need to deal with a recognition that we are in a situation of long-term political conflict. If you look at strategic policy, most policy in relation to China is concerned with challenging China’s legitimacy in terms of its actions in areas that bump up against Western or regional interests. The South China Sea is a good example,  but the really significant area is in relation to Taiwan.

“The second driver of their strategy is that China is resource-hungry. It needs resources, because it has to sustain levels of growth to deliver economically to its people; in a sense, sustaining economic growth is one foundation for the current legitimacy of the Communist Party.

“The third element is because they are hungry for resources, they are looking at ways of guaranteeing supply. Belt and Road; the relationship with the countries that are close to them, in Southeast Asia, Cambodia, Laos, and so on; their alignment with Russia at the moment; all can be seen as an attempt to guarantee resource flows into China, and to give China diversity of supply.

“I think one of the issues for Australia is that we have been complacent about being a monopoly provider to China in certain areas. In my view the Chinese don’t like that. It represents risk. They will wear some pain in order to reduce their risk in relation to countries like Australia. Of course, we have created strategic risk for ourselves by having so much of the economy dependent on a narrow range of exports to China.

“The fourth key element is that they work to create buffers. The Xi regime wants to maximize the distance between China and potential threats. China is a country with many land borders with other countries. They are trying to push outwards and increase their strategic space.

“They do that in two ways. One is what you see in the South China Sea; a much more aggressive extension of boundaries with their territorial claims, island-building and occupation and militarization of claimed areas. Another is to try to bring close countries within a Chinese sphere of influence or, in the case of India, establish primacy.

“The final element of their strategy which affects Australia quite significantly is to break alliances. They seek to make themselves the center of the Indo-Pacific regional order. They don’t want to face any form of alliance or coalition of the willing that is going to, in a sense, reduce their capacity to control the agenda and to establish patterns of behavior across the strategic system in ways that support China’s interests. In this respect, the QUAD is an important strategic intervention because it signals that China’s cannot unilaterally establish the future strategic order. It must take account of other countries in the Indo Pacific.”

With regard to China’s approach to the United States, a key element of Xi’s strategy is to “raise the cost of the United States operating in the Indo-Pacific region.

“They do that in two ways. One is through diplomacy to make it harder for the United States to operate here. The other way is to push the U.S., and everyone else, out beyond the First Island Chain. And that means that if they control the South China Sea, and they control Taiwan, they have unimpeded access to the Pacific, and they can establish a more capable future deterrent capability against the United States.”

How then did Sargeant see Australia and its allies and partners countering this strategy with one of their own?

He started by underscoring the importance of recognizing that the Xi regime is not the equivalent of China itself. “We talk about the friendship with China, but that confuses China with the Chinese government. The Chinese government is not our friend. It is as simple as that. We should not assume that it is.”

Sargeant argued that Australia along with its ally and partners need to expand the reach of its defense capabilities to operate within the Indo-Pacific region. The challenge highlighted in COVID-19 of supply chains needs to be met with what John Blackburn has called “smart sovereignty” whereby Australia works with allies and partners to shape supply chains not dependent upon China, and by working “coalitions of the willing” in supply chain areas, one can build up the kind of alternative to reliance on Chinese markets that Xi’s regime needs to remain in control of China itself.

“We clearly will work with China, but we need to do so from the standpoint of understanding that we are dealing with a government with priorities and interests very different to ours. We need to conduct a diplomacy with China that seeks to identify areas of common interest and to work in those areas. We need to establish boundaries in areas where our interests diverge. We need to operate on the pragmatic assumption that the relationship will be limited. To describe the Chinese government using terms like friend or partner is misleading. We work to support common interests and to minimize problems where interests diverge, and it doesn’t mean anything more than that.”

He underscored the importance of setting in motions of a broader partnership and alliance strategy built on providing ways to influence China’s approach to the Indo-Pacific.

“What we haven’t seen with policy towards China is a more concerted strategic positioning with coalitions in response.”

“What I see at the moment is a lot of volatility and experiments, as people try to establish a framework, a strategic order, that is capable of solving problems, that allocates roles and power in a way that doesn’t, in a sense, concede everything to China or embody a nostalgia for a U.S. as it might have been, not as it is now.”

“We need to push back against initiatives by China, or any of the other authoritarians, that are going to work against our interests.”

“This is a real challenge for Australia. We’ve always had an approach of separating economics from strategy. Our statecraft has been immature in that respect. In the future, in dealing with China, and with the other authoritarians, we need to understand that how we do all aspects of policy internationally has to be congruent with our strategic interests.

“We can’t separate economics from strategy. We can’t assume that there’s a set of rules in common with the authoritarian powers that we are following as well. I think that that’s what the Europeans have done, and that’s their faith, a faith in the rules-based order being supported by the authoritarians. That world has gone.”

He cautioned that although European nations pursue economic interests, those are not related in any fundamental way towards dealing with China and the Indo-Pacific as a whole.

“European strategy has always seemed to me myopic and concerned with the economic positioning of the significant countries in Europe. It is not global. It doesn’t have a global vision. And when you look at Europe in the Indo-Pacific, everyone is rushing here to talk to India, to talk to China, and to open up branch offices because they think there’s money to be made. It has nothing to do with strategy; it has nothing to do with the defense of liberal democracy.”

“The agreement that they have come to with China, and the rhetoric around it, is just not credible. I agree with the Americans, it is not strategic. They needed to take more time and think more deeply about the implications of it. It is clearly a gift to President Xi.”

He highlighted as well that President Xi might mis-read the actual military situation he faces. With President Trump there was a more realistic assessment of American power and its inability to operate as a global policeman.  As Sargeant put it with regard to the United States: ”I think one of the challenges for the U.S. administration is to actually align its strategic policy in appropriate communication with its actual power.”

But working with the coalition partners in the Indo-Pacific region and the extensive engagement of the U.S. military in the region creates a formidable defense capability. “When I look at the China challenge, what worries me the most about China is that they overestimate their own power, and they underestimate U.S. power. We need to work to correct Xi’s understanding of what he actually faces in the region in response to his regime’s disruption of the region.”

With regard to shaping a way ahead for Australia, what is the key focus?

“We need a strategic policy that connects us with the world, where the instruments of economic power and the instruments of more traditional strategic power are operated in an integrated way to shape effective “coalitions of the willing” to try to shape China’s participation in the regional strategic system in ways that support all participants in that system. A regional strategic system dominated by an authoritarian China is not in Australia’s interests.

“Australia is building the capacity to create those coalitions that sustain the ability to exercise sovereignty, if that’s a term you want to use. We are potentially quite vulnerable, because of the way we have structured our economy, and our defense is probably not big enough to secure all our interests unilaterally. This means that we need to work effectively with other countries, the United States being a key ally, but also to work effectively with like-minded states in the region, in order to enhance our capacity to defend ourselves and exercise Australian sovereignty in ways that support our interests.

“But it’s not about traditional alliances; it’s about building capacity to work together to build and sustain capabilities appropriate to circumstances and to respond to problems when they occur.  It is about working with others to shape the strategic environment in ways that support our interests.”

Also, see the following:

China, Australia and Global Change: Why a European Agreement Now?

For my recent book on the evolution of Australian defence strategy:

Joint by Design: The Evolution of Australian Defence Strategy

And for a report on Senator Jim Molan’s perspective of the way ahead for shaping an Australian national defence and security strategy, see the following:

Shaping an Australian National Security Strategy: The Perspective of Senator Jim Molan