October 04, 2020

Strategic Autonomy Must in the Age of Multilateralism

B Arjun

THE world is polarised on the China issue. A few countries are towing the United States (US) line, decoupling economy with China, and participating in Mike Pompeo’s mission which states changing the CPC’s behaviour cannot be the mission of the Chinese people alone. Free nations have to work to defend freedom.”

Such open regime-change rhetoric advanced by the American leadership and propagated by its media and soft power instruments have led China to exercise its hard power options, especially in areas that are vulnerable and easily penetrable by the American power and its allies.   

This article looks at the foreign policy approaches adopted by two countries, close US allies, in dealing with China. The first is Australia, a nation loyal and deferential to the United States, that is acting as a close collaborator of the US in pursuing an anti-China strategy, jeopardising its economic ties with China and eroding the people-to-people engagements that were thriving just six months back.

The second country is Germany that is refusing to appease the US by disturbing the trajectory of its positive ties with Beijing. Chancellor Angela Merkel is withstanding the US pressure well doing a decent balancing act.

Australia, a crucial member of the five-eyes security allies, has decided to treat China as an adversary, leading to a rise in political tensions between the two. Speaking on the connection between China and Australia at the University of New South Wales in August 2018, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, said, “It’s a very deep relationship, one of great opportunity and potential and it gets deeper and stronger all the time.”

As Trump’s trade war against China gained momentum, the Australian government changed tack and tweaked its China policy in consonance with US strategic objectives. Matters became worse when Australia backed an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is difficult to understand the sharp deterioration in Australia-China ties, especially because till recently, the two-way trade was upbeat growing from  $183.5 billion in 2017 to $251.4 billion in 2019. The constant flow of Chinese students and tourists was a big boon for the Australian economy.

Now, Australians have become highly suspicious of Chinese technological products, as well as intellectuals. In 2018, the Australian government banned Huawei’s participation in building the nation’s 5G network, all under the pretext of national security. In response to Canberra’s continuous tirade, Beijing has banned the import of Australian beef and placed an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley.

China is aggressively retaliating. It is equally suspicious of the American sympathizers. Recently, the two journalists, Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Mike Smith of the Australian Financial Review who were barred from leaving China were finally able to fly back to their country after the resolution of a diplomatic standoff. According to BBC, a record 17 foreign journalists have been expelled from China since the beginning of this year.

Besides being a crucial member of the Quadrilateral (Quad) initiative, launched under the tutelage of the US, to contain China in the Indo-Pacific, Australia has also been active against the Chinese government’s push to tighten its control over Hong Kong. In July this year, Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison suspended the extradition agreement with Hong Kong and extended visas for an estimated 10,000 Hong Kong people already in Australia because of concerns about the impact of the new national security law.

Australia that has given precedence to its security relationship with the US over its robust economic ties with China is proving the Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad right, who said in 2002 that Australia is “a stalking horse for the US-led West, determined to keep Asians down.”


The foundations of the Sino-German relations were laid in 1984 when the Germans set up a Volkswagen’s factory in Shanghai. This was followed by the arrival in China of other German companies, Siemens, and chemical maker BASF. Over the past four decades, this economic engagement has grown manifold. The current volume of trade between the two is almost 200 billion euros. From April to June this year, "China imported goods worth nearly 23 billion euros ($27.25 billion) from Germany, replacing the US market which had been the biggest buyer of German goods for many years.”

This deep economic engagement is one reason that Chancellor Angela Merkel has refused to entertain calls for decisive action on China. Merkel has ignored Washington’s pressure to pick sides in the new Cold War building between China and the US. The Germans are playing a waiting game, expecting the US-China tensions to dissipate after the elections in USA.

Germany suspended its extradition agreement with Hong Kong, but its approach to dealing with China remains “flexible and pragmatic”. Berlin has neither jumped into banning Chinese mobile applications nor levied any new tariffs on Chinese goods. Merkel has retained her right to criticise China’s human rights record. She has entertained Dalai Lama in Germany but has judiciously kept politics and economics in separate compartments.

Germany is fully aware of it geography. Its strategy is not discounting the fact that it is has a future beyond the transatlantic connect, especially as the emerging Eurasian connectivity is beginning to impact geopolitics. Keeping these geographic realities in mind, the Germans have also refused to listen to President Trump, ignored the security issues with Russia, and gone ahead with the natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 project that runs under the Baltic Sea and would carry Russian gas directly to Germany.

In a world moving toward multilateralism and the opening of Eurasian trade routes, Germany is not indulging in senselessness securitisation of its foreign policy vis-a-vis China. It is exerting strategic autonomy, a dream of every sovereign nation.


Unfortunately, much like Australia, the Indian foreign policy is being increasingly seen as an adjunct of Trump’s confrontationist approach to China. New Delhi’s proximity to Washington is one of the main reasons for provoking China’s paranoia and military build-up in the Ladakh.

Indian foreign policy, detached from America's concerns about the rise of China may reassure Beijing about New Delhi’s intentions to keep the borders calm. A peace deal with China would help India to avoid the expenditure it is incurring in maintaining the army formations all along the 3000 km long LAC with China. Only adroit diplomacy can help India maintain peace and provide the much-needed cash for the plummeting Indian economy.