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The other ‘Thucydides Trap’ between China and Australia

Conflict may be inevitable now that China has risen to a position of geopolitical and economic strength, and demands to call the shots in the region

By Alex Lo

December 01, 2020 "Information Clearing House" - "SCMP" - People fret about a “Thucydides Trap” of inevitable conflict between China and the United States. But what is also alarming is that between China and Australia. Many people think the recent rising animosity between the two Asian countries is caused by accidents such as the dispute over the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic and trade conflicts. It may yet blow over.

However, the reality is that Australia is geographically of the East, but ideologically of the West. That was not a problem before China’s rise; now it is.

What is surprising is not the recent outbreak of recrimination, but that Beijing and Canberra have managed to do business for so long by taking part in a marriage of convenience that has benefited both sides enormously.

That arrangement is coming to an end, much like the economic coupling of the US and China is a thing of the past, even as those in the Australian business community are hoping for a diplomatic reset. For them, it’s about lobsters, barley and wine. But the gravy train may have already crashed.

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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison during the ASEAN-Australia Leaders' Summit at Parliament House in Canberra this month. Photo: AAP

There has never been any doubt that when push comes to shove, Australia will always side with the Western alliance led by Washington. But there has been an implicit understanding, at least on the part of Beijing when it sealed the 2015 China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, that Canberra would not automatically take America’s side short of vital national interests being at stake.

Beijing has now been disabused.

When Uncle Sam comes calling, Australia will have to sacrifice even national interests in its economy as the price of staying with the Five Eyes alliance of English-speaking countries.

Canada, especially under the current Justin Trudeau government, has long been torn between envy over the economic benefits Australia has enjoyed from China and the harsh realities of open trade with the Asian superpower.

Now, it may heave a sigh of relief for not having developed such an economically dependent relationship with China, even though it is having its own diplomatic nightmare over the extradition case of Huawei’s No 2 Meng Wanzhou, again thanks to the Americans.

The old dependency theory of international relations would have an underdeveloped country being economically locked in by a much more powerful one, usually the US. That has turned on its head with Australia. It’s just starting to realise the cost of losing its best customer but gaining the worst enemy.

Alex Lo has been a Post columnist since 2012, covering major issues affecting Hong Kong and the rest of China. A journalist for 25 years, he has worked for various publications in Hong Kong and Toronto as a news reporter and editor. He has also lectured in journalism at the University of Hong Kong.

The South China Morning Post, with its Sunday edition, the Sunday Morning Post, is a Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper founded in 1903. It is Hong Kong's newspaper of record, owned by Alibaba Group. The newspaper was founded by Tse Tsan-tai and Alfred Cunningham in 1903.

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