Australia-China ties are at their lowest point in history, former ambassador says (ABC Nov 4, 2020)

A former Australian ambassador to China has called on the Federal Government to rethink its relationship with Beijing amid what he calls “the greatest power shift that has occurred in modern history”.

Former ambassador Geoff Raby, who currently runs a Beijing-based business advisory firm, has this week released a book on Australia-China relations titled China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s Future in the New Global Order.

Dr Raby, who served as Australia’s top diplomat in China from 2007 to 2011, told the ABC relations between Australia and China were at their lowest point since ties were established in 1972.

He attributed that decline in the diplomatic relationship to Australia’s decision to join with the United States in resisting China’s economic and political rise.

Former Australian ambassador to China, Geoff Raby
Geoff Raby was Australia’s ambassador to Beijing between 2007 and 2011.(ABC News: Alyssa Betts)

“It’s quite normal and natural for the dominant power to do that — push back against the ascendant power, that’s the nature of power shifts historically and always has been,” Dr Raby said.

The release of the former ambassador’s book comes as Australian exporters brace for further trade strikes, with China this week holding up a large shipment of Australian seafood and banning Queensland timber imports.

A tractor pulls a seeding rig across a paddock
China imposed an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley in May.(ABC Rural: Jo Prendergast)

Some Chinese wine importers have also this week been told to stop shipments of Australian wine, according to industry sources.

China has already disrupted a number of key Australian export industries this year including beef, wine, barley and coal — moves that have been interpreted widely as a response to souring ties between Canberra and Beijing.

Australia facing a ‘dystopian future’

Chinese flags fly high outside the Australian Parliament House in Canberra
High-level official contacts between Beijing and Canberra have also been frozen for years.(AAP: Lukas Coch)

Dr Raby was plain about what he thought Australia’s future would look like in an increasingly less democratic world.

“We face a dystopian future — the future for Australia is very unpleasant as we sit today and contemplate it,” he said.

He said this was compounded by Washington’s decision to step away from global leadership, a trend he said was likely to continue regardless of the results of today’s presidential election.

Australia would need to learn to operate in that sort of world, and develop an independent foreign policy that reflected its new reality, he said.

“We have to find a way of working with China in this world to influence its behaviour and also to continue to protect our economic interests,” Dr Raby said.

A woman stands in front of a shining booth showing off mobile phone technology
The Australian Government’s ban on Huawei from Australia’s 5G network remains a sore point between the two countries.(Reuters)

At the moment though, Australia appears to be failing to find a way to get along with China — besides the trade strikes, high-level official contacts have also been frozen for years.

This came after a series of actions by the Australian Government, including the decision to ban Huawei from Australia’s 5G network over security concerns, and more recently Canberra’s call for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Raby said the issue was not necessarily the substance of the decisions Australia made, which may have been fully justified, but how they were made.

“If you’re going to do those things … then massage the message, it’s the same with the Prime Minister’s call for an independent inquiry into the origin of COVID-19.

“Nothing wrong with that, perfectly reasonable: but the way we did it was just calculated to make China lose face, and to basically align us with Trump’s blistering attacks on China at the time over COVID-19.”

China a ‘constrained superpower’

A Chinese and Australian flag o a conference table
Australia-China relations are at their lowest point since ties were established in 1972, according to Mr Raby.(Reuters: Jason Lee)

Dr Raby also said that for all the security concerns around China’s rise, he does not believe the country actually poses an existential threat to Australia.

He describes China as being a “constrained superpower” — the country’s history, geography and dependence on international markets for resources and energy all place limits on its ability to project power.

The nation neighbours 14 other countries, forcing it to defend a more than 22,000-kilometre-long border; it’s also “an empire with unresolved territorial issues”, Dr Raby said, referring to tensions over Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

It’s also hugely reliant on both importing and exporting goods through the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, which the US could easily take control of in the event of a conflict.

Dr Raby said these factors made it unlikely that China would enter into conflict with Australia, and that failing to understand the limits on China’s power would lead to “strategic miscalculation”.

He said the decision to “[align] so closely with the US in treating China as a strategic competitor” was an example of such a miscalculation.

The Federal Government has previously said its policies in this area were its own, and that it makes foreign policy decisions “in Australia’s national interest”.

“We need to get this out of our heads, that China is somehow a military or existential threat to Australia.”

Engagement with China ‘unfashionable’

A composite of the Chinese and Australian flags on cracked ground.
Dr Raby says the debate about China in Australia is becoming increasingly polarised.(ABC News: GFX/Jarrod Fankhauser)

Dr Raby argues for a return to strategic cooperation, instead of strategic competition, with the soon-to-be dominant power in Asia.

However, he writes in the conclusion of his book that calling for more engagement with China is “unfashionable” at the moment.

He told the ABC the debate around China policy in Australia had “gone completely off the rails” and “become binary”.

“It is an extraordinary state that we’ve found ourselves in.”

Professor Jane Golley, an economist and director of the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University (ANU), said this issue was “one of the biggest areas of misconception” when it came to discussions on Australia-China relations.

“The distinction shouldn’t be about being pro or anti-China — it should be about being pro-engagement or pro-containment,” she said.

“I see the latter as both futile and unwise, given China’s current and likely future position in the world power order, and the costs that containment would impose on our people and theirs, if it somehow succeeded.”

Yun Jiang, editor of the ANU’s China Story blog, said this was an issue she was also concerned about.

Without commenting directly on Dr Raby’s book, Ms Jiang said she felt debates on the bilateral relationship had “become almost like a moral crusade”.

“When we talk about what Australia’s relationship with China should be, pretty much everyone is starting from the point of advancing your sort of national interest, we just disagree on whether … more economic engagement is better or worse for Australia’s national interest.”

By Michael Walsh and Alan Weedon

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