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Values and Identity in Australia’s Foreign Policy

Yun Jiang

The concept of values is one facet of national interest that often comes up in discussions on China. It is commonly accepted that we do not have shared values with China, because of its Communist system of governance and its human rights records. Yet according to the Australian government, we do have shared values with another authoritarian communist country, Vietnam, and with countries committing human rights violations such as India.

It is time to examine values in the context of foreign policy more closely.

Australian identity

Values are not constant, they change over time. For example, for many decades since Federation, the White Australia policy was deeply entrenched as an Australian value whereas now many Australians are accustomed to multiculturalism.

These days we consider our values to be liberal democratic. But when it comes to our foreign policy, these values are not consistently applied, partly due to our identity as a Western country.

Our identity is often alluded to by our political leaders, especially during discussion of the national curriculum or history. But it is rarely part of the foreign policy discussion. The reason is that our political and policy institutions and foreign policy establishment are overwhelmingly white, and blind to the effect of racism and identity on foreign policy. Of the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance countries, Australia has the least diverse parliament. Our public service also lacks ethnic diversity. And how often do you see, hear or read Australian foreign policy commentators who are not white?

As a result, we identify with other Anglo powers, such as the UK and the US. For example, the constant reference to our history with these two countries ignores our long-standing connection with Asia, as well as First Nations people’s very much longer engagement with the Asia/Pacific region. A senior national security commentator even alluded to a kinship with these countries, a description that would not have been applied to an Asian country, even though many Australians have deep family connections with Asia. Most foreign policy analysts in Australia have experiences working in the US or the UK, but not in Asia.

A liberal rules-based order

We often hear laments for the decline of the liberal rules-based order. Yet under this order, the US, its allies and partners have overthrown democratically elected governments in South America, propped up illiberal and authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and invaded countries without UN authorisation. Australia supported all these actions because the perpetrator was another Anglo power.

We were unhappy in the 1980s when Japan was on the rise, despite its democratic system of government, because its ascendency threatened the US primacy. So out of the concern for its rise, the US and Australia used economic coercion against Japan (an ally of the US!) until Japan’s economic growth slowed down, and we were no longer threatened by it.

Now it’s China’s turn, and we are concerned about the decline of the liberal rules-based order due to China’s actions. Yet we were not concerned when we supported the US to overthrow Chile’s democratically elected government with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service opening a station in Santiago in 1971, or when US invaded Iraq without a UN mandate in 2003 based on questionable evidence. But of course, the US is our friend and our ally. We have shared history and kinship. It’s different when it’s family.

And because certain countries such as Vietnam and India are seen as potential allies in the fight against this potential threat to US primacy in Asia, we can overlook their human rights violations and declare that we have shared values. But if India was one day to threaten US primacy, no doubt the rhetoric would change.

Since we identify with Anglo powers such as the US, untangling our national interest from them can be more difficult. We identify with them, they look like us and speak the same language. We understand the multiple dimensions in our relationships.

But China? It was only a customer yesterday, and a threat we must defend against today. We are capable of seeing China through only one lens at a time.

Liberal values at home

Though we profess to defend liberal democratic values abroad, we trash the same values at home. For example, the recent debate around foreign interference has drastically exacerbated the general suspicion towards Chinese Australians as well as undermined our liberal democratic values.

Foreign interference legislation is country-agnostic, but because of its broad remit the government can choose where to focus its effort so that it need only investigate incidences related to countries of concern, such as China, while wilfully ignoring other incidences of foreign interference by, say, the US. In fact, some national security analysts are not happy about the country-agnostic nature of the legislation and want the government to focus only on countries of concern and blatantly permit foreign interference from other countries.

As part of the foreign interference investigation, the security agencies raided people’s homes because they were members of a private chat group or because they provided “a slanted view”. So far, investigations have not led to any convictions, despite high-profile raids in front of the media and the pressure to convict under the new legislation. Furthermore, the Prime Minister said all Australians must “speak with one voice” in order to counter China. How is that for liberal democratic values, which the government professes to defend?

Panic has filtered to outside the government too. Organisations are actively avoiding hiring Chinese Australians due to risk perception.

Yet talks about racism and social cohesion are not popular or persuasive in the foreign policy community. In fact, the only way we may see action on this issue is if it is framed it in foreign interference and national security terms, by pointing out that racism can be used as a wedge by China. This has led to the perverse consequence that those who speak up about racism in Australia are accused of doing China’s bidding.

During Great Power competitions such as the Cold War era, human rights and civil liberties get trampled, both at home and abroad, increasing suspicions and paranoia. Yet here in Australia, many in the national security community look back to the Cold War with fondness, while ignoring the immense sufferings inflicted upon individuals, particularly those with different political views or ethnicities.

So it is imperative that we don’t lose sight of what we supposedly hold dear — our liberal democratic values — as Great Power competition heats up. After all, what is the point of countering China if we just end up like China? And in our foreign policy, we must hold on tightly to our professed values and apply them consistently, not just with regards to China, but with all countries, including ourselves.


Yun Jiang is the co-founder and former editor of China Neican. She has published and been cited widely on China-related topics, with a focus on Australia’s policies on China. She was a managing editor of the China Story blog and a researcher in geoeconomics at the Australian National University. Prior to that, she was a policy adviser in the Australian Government, with policy experience covering economics, national security, and foreign policy.


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