Australia and China: Getting out of the hole

Nov 27, 2020

The Scottish Independent Labour Party leader in the 1930s, Jimmy Maxton, summed up the challenge of political leadership as well as anybody ever has: “If you can’t ride two bloody horses at once, you shouldn’t be in the bloody circus”. 

In getting out of the hole into which we have dug ourselves with China, the beginning of wisdom for Australia’s political leaders is to recognise that – as their Vietnamese counterparts are reportedly fond of saying – we have to both “get along with China, but stand up to it”.  Easier said than done, but it can be.

Our huge economic dependency on China gives us no choice but to get along: how long will it take us to find alternative markets for nearly 40 percent of our exports?  But there have also been multiple legitimate concerns about Beijing’s behaviour which require a firm and clear response, among them defiance of international law in the South China Sea; egregious domestic violations of human rights (and in the case of Hong Kong, of treaty obligations as well), discriminatory and overprotective trade and industry policies, and some attempts – most of them clumsy – to exercise undue influence over public institutions.

The question in these issues is not whether to stand up, but how to stand up. And the reality is that the way in which we have responded to for the most part legitimate concerns over the last few years has made us extremely vulnerable – much more so than other countries in the region, like Japan, who have been walking a similar tightrope. I would identify four key failures in this respect.

The first is what (as John McCarthy recently reminded us) Talleyrand would have described as “excessive zeal” – too much tone-deaf stridency in our language, starting with the way Malcolm Turnbull introduced the undue influence legislation in 2017; too much over the top behaviour, as in the ASIO/AFP raids on Chinese journalists; and too much unchecked offensiveness in parliamentary performances by Senator Abetz and his fellow Wolverines.

Accompanying this, there has been a failure to fully factor in the risks – for a country of our economic vulnerability and at best middleweight – of not only irritating but hurting China, as we have done in not just joining but leading the international charge on Huawei, tough foreign investment restrictions and foreign influence laws.

I love to see Australia playing a creative, energetic international leadership role, as I hope my own record as foreign minister makes clear, but caution is the better part of valour when other major national interests are at risk.

Again, too many of the stands we have taken – those just mentioned, and above all our operationally and diplomatically ill-prepared braying for an inquiry into China’s Covid response – have played all too readily into the United States “Deputy Sheriff” narrative, and as such left us open to even heavier counter-punching. We are an easier and more vulnerable target than the US itself ever will be.

Finally, there has been insufficient recognition that there is not a lot of downside for China in getting stuck into Australia.  Our iron ore is needed, but not much else. China may like our coal, and agricultural products, and to have Australia as a student and tourist destination, but it does not need us for any of them.

So what is the right strategy to get out of our present hole? To me, it has five elements.

The first, as in all these cases, is to stop digging don’t add any more grounds for complaint to the fourteen that have been conveniently listed for us recently by the Chinese Embassy’s resident wolf-warriors. While I would regard most of these complaints as overdrawn, only three of them (relating to Australia’s statements on the South China Sea; positions on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan; and failure to curb unfriendly press comment) seem to me completely without justification: on all the rest some real navigational care is required.

The second is to moderate our official language, as Prime Minister Morrison and some of his senior ministers, notably the Treasurer, have belatedly started to do, including by emphasising the positives in the relationship, and remembering that when we make legitimate criticisms of Chinese behaviour, in diplomacy words are bullets.

Beyond that, the legion of over-excitable foreign influence enthusiasts in the government’s ranks need to be much more careful than they have been about using language tending to demonise our hugely valuable Chinese-Australian community, which is presently feeling very stressed and vulnerable. Some self-restraint from the media in all these respects would also be a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Third, our leaders should make absolutely clear, when we take a negative position on anything to do with China, that this is a matter of independent national judgment and not of looking over our shoulder for guidance from our own imperial masters.  Foreign Minister Payne and more recently the Prime Minister have made some useful forays in this direction, but we cannot overdo the independence talk – or, of course, actions consistent with it.

Fourth, we need to acknowledge the legitimacy and inevitability of some of China’s international aspirations, and not get over-excited about it wanting to buy strategic space for itself, the military capacity to protect its economic lifelines, and an influence in global policy-making consonant with its new strength. Much of its recent behaviour is no more than could be expected of a dramatically economically rising, hugely trade-dependent regional superpower wanting to flap its wings and reassert its historical greatness after more than a century of wounded pride, and should not be assumed to be a precursor to military aggression.

We should also acknowledge that some of China’s commercial concerns may not be entirely without foundation: plenty of objective observers think we have been overdoing our anti-dumping complaints, which have hugely exceeded in number those coming back at us from Beijing.

Finally, we should work hard to find issues on which there is genuine common ground. Australia should play both on what’s left of our reputation as a good international citizen, committed to finding effective multilateral solutions to global and regional public goods issues, and China’s desire to project soft power. Beijing has not been helping itself in this respect in recent times, but in areas like on climate, nuclear weapons, peacekeeping, counter-terrorism, arms control and – for the most part – response to pandemics, it has played a more interested, constructive and potentially cooperative role than has generally been recognised.

It seems clear that the Biden administration, while maintaining – not least under Congressional pressure – a harder line on China than previous Democrat presidencies, will be keen to explore opportunities for cooperation in this space, on the same principle that when a relationship is under strain, the smart course is to focus hard on potential shared interests, that can unite rather than further divide.

Climate is clearly the issue which Biden will focus on, and hopefully the American shift here – and the accompanying pressure we in Australia will be under to finally get our act together on a credible 2050 target – will be the straw that finally breaks the back of Scott Morrison’s unedifying capitulation to his Party’s climate troglodytes.

I am not suggesting that getting the Australia-China relationship back on even keel will be quick or easy.  But there does seem to be an emerging consensus among our more thoughtful and informed commentators, including those contributing to these columns, that there is –  as Geoff Raby puts it – a middle way between sycophancy and hostility, and that it involves the kind of elements I have here sketched out.

If tensions between the US and China do ease, as is likely with adults – tough-minded though they may be – back in charge in Washington, and if our own leadership keeps its head down and itself acts a little more maturely than has been the norm during the life of this government, a resumption of something like normality over the course of the next year or so is certainly possible, and I am optimistic enough to think likely.

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