Can the West extend its clear-eyed thinking beyond China?

We can look at China with clear eyes, but we are yet unable to look at the West and ourselves with clear eyes.

Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than the uncritical and unreflective use of the term “liberal international order” or “rules-based global order” in the public discourse.

Australian policymakers often lament the decline of the “liberal international order”. But the postwar international order was only liberal from the perspective of the dominant powers – the West that we’re part of. It was never liberal for many countries in South America and the Middle East.

We in Australia tend to forget that under the so-called “liberal” order, the United States and its allies and partners supported the overthrow of democratically elected governments in countries such as Iran and Guatemala. Their interventions in the Middle East (far away from the US homeland) continue to this day. “Liberal rules and norms” were quickly brushed aside when they became inconvenient.

Despite the fact that the United States is a liberal democracy at home, it is still propping up illiberal regimes abroad. Being a democracy did not stop the United States from supporting the authoritarian regime in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. It did not make it push for more human rights for Palestinians, even though it has significant influence on Israel as its biggest supporter.

We are then told we have to defend the “liberal international order” against the authoritarian China. Many political leaders say they are concerned about China’s rising power because the world would be less liberal due to China’s governance system.

But if the United States is perfectly willing to work with authoritarian regimes and dictatorships and overlook human rights concerns, then China can also co-operate with democracies. China becoming more powerful does not necessarily mean that China will seek to impose its governance system on other countries through coercion.

In fact, China is behaving like rising powers before it, including the United States when it was rising to global prominence. China’s interests are expanding as it becomes more powerful. It seeks increasing power and influence in its neighbourhood, which Beijing sees as its sphere of interest.

Moreover, would a democratic China be less ambitious or less driven to assert its ever-expanding suite of global interests?

Australia and the United States were also very concerned about rising Japan in the 1980s. Back then in the United States, Japan was seen as a threat to the American economy and was condemned for “unfair trade”. In Australia, growing Japanese investment faced strong backlash. Sound familiar? Yet Japan was a US ally and a democracy.

Perhaps part of the reason we are so anxious is that China today (like Japan in the 1980s) is not an Anglosphere power. Instead, it is an Asian power.

We are worried because we, the West, may not be at the top of the pecking order any more. We are experiencing what it feels like to be coerced, to be interfered with. We are experiencing a small taste of what it is like to be a country in South America or the Middle East or south-east Asia. And unsurprisingly, we don’t like it.

It is not about China versus the West, it’s great powers versus the rest (and each other). Great powers, no matter whether they are democratic or authoritarian, will seek to influence and interfere in world affairs to their advantage. What the smaller powers can hope for is that they’re not at the end of the big stick wielded by those great powers, whether democratic or authoritarian.

The above is not to say we don’t have to worry about China’s conduct. Domestically, China’s illiberal turn under Xi Jinping in recent years is increasingly threatening to peoples of the People’s Republic. We are seeing ethnic minorities being oppressed, and dissent being crushed.

So we should pay attention to what’s going on inside China, because it affects one-fifth of the world’s population. But this does not mean pushing for regime change (we’ve seen enough of what that can lead to). It does mean that we should speak up about human rights in China, just like we should speak up about human rights everywhere, including at home.

It should never be taken for granted that Australia will always be a defender of liberal values, and will not turn to more authoritarian values ourselves. In fact, we’re seeing a worrying trend towards prioritising national security over transparency and civil liberties in Australia – a trend towards illiberalism.

We need to see all countries across the globe with clear and critical eyes, not just the ones with governments we don’t like. But even though the international order was never as liberal and open as some like to make out it was today, we should still promote liberal values to protect the weak against the strong – at home and abroad.


The article was originally published in Canberra Times on 6 April 2021.