Australia’s fear of China: renewed trust a matter of dialogue and respect

Oct 22, 2022
Chinese Dragon holding a globe, turned to Asia and Australia. Isolated on white

Fear of China is currently dominant in Australia’s public discourse, as reflected in recent opinion polls, surveys, and mainstream media. Fear of China is of course not new in Australia. It was a driver of Federation at the end of the 19th Century and the first act of the new Federal Parliament was long recognised as ‘The White Australia Policy.’

It would be naïve and possibly dangerous to believe that in decidedly multi-cultural and diversity-committed Australia current discomfort about China was simply the result of long-held racism. After all, Chinese Australians are now a significant proportion of Australia’s population (5.5% in the 2021 Census) particularly in Sydney (almost 11%) and Melbourne (more than 8%).

It would be equally as naïve to believe that fear of China was simply the result of the military threat perceived by the USA and its allies. The USA military is three times the size of that of the PRC; a higher proportion of GDP is spent on military expenditure than in the PRC; and increases in military expenditure have been greater.

Yet competition between the USA and the PRC is at the heart of the new fear of China. The PRC’s successful economic growth has made it a disruptive factor in international politics. Though globalised economies and their international interactions might have originated with the USA, it has been the PRC that has now used the formulae entailed in these relationships to establish itself as a nascent superpower, demanding what it sees as its rightful place in the world order. In the process, long established alliances and relationships amongst nation states, and mind-sets about international relations are necessarily challenged.

Fear is often a function of ignorance, or lack of balanced perspective. So it is in this case with respect to Australia’s view of China. Australia’s economy and high standard of living has much to do with the PRC. Australia has a sizeable trade surplus with the PRC. 32% of Australia’s exports go to the PRC, compared to the next largest 16% that go to Japan. Australia also imports substantially from the PRC: 29% of imports, compared to the next highest (the USA) which is 11%. Australia is a relatively small country in world impact, albeit with a developed economy and high levels of education and invention. It sits as it has done for some decades uneasily between two global powers, who in addition to their economic and political clout, and military strengths in East Asia, also claim a moral superiority for themselves alone, in which Australia cannot share.

One way to overcome the fear of China and the fear of disruption is to engage with the PRC rather than demonise it. To move forward requires distinguishing between challenges to Australia, on the one hand, and on the other, not only things some or all Australians do not like or approve of, but also that not all interactions between the two countries (especially those in science and technology) are about security, and that there is inevitably a changing world order as a consequence of the PRC’s greater economic strength and political presence.

 When discussing interactions between states international relations experts and commentators of all kinds are fond of referring to ‘the three Cs’ – competition, collaboration, and conflict – recognising that these are not mutually exclusive. Competition between Australia and China is surely not as significant as complementarity, and not just in economic activities. Collaboration in scientific research and technological development have continued even under current conditions. Conflict there certainly has been metaphorically, but it may be worth proposing three further ‘Cs’ – communication, caution, and critical engagement – as part of the recipe to assist Australia to begin lessening its fear of China and negotiating the disruption caused by the latter’s greater world role.

Communication is crucial to other activities. The consequences of megaphone diplomacy towards the PRC have been well demonstrated. Australia and China are different countries with different standard operating procedures, at the individual level as much as in terms of state interactions. Bridging the gap though requires not just the re-establishment of trust but probably of even greater importance the development of a simple respect. Australia does not have to approve of things that go on in, or actions that are taken by, the PRC to appreciate the position of the Party-state. Communication is even more important at the individual level. Australia needs people both in government and in society who have contacts in the PRC, and Australians need to be able to welcome contacts from the PRC. Trust is difficult to maintain without personal contacts, and respect is all too readily trashed. One way to achieve better communication and understanding between peoples outside formal government activities is to follow the example of Western Europe after World War Two in bringing communities together across countries, not just through twinning localities, but also by encouraging exchanges of students and young people, and establishing dialogues between those in professions, industries, and similar workplaces.

Caution is necessary because Australia and China are different countries with different backgrounds and histories. Activities and ideas that are acceptable in either Australia or China may not be acceptable in the other country, either politically or socially. Politics and government work differently in each. Moreover, the difference between the public and the private and what may be articulated in private or in public vary greatly. Both from the Australian and the China side, governments and individuals should never work from the assumption that their way of doing things or managing situations can apply with or to governments or individuals from the other.

Critical engagement is also important. For Australia and Australians, critical engagement entails being able to reflect on involvement in China and knowing when and how to talk about things that take place that are cause for concern without giving offence. There will be occasions when self-reflection leads to exit for a range of reasons, depending on ethical positions and the strength of feelings and possibly economic interests. The PRC is after all someone else’s country. Expressing concerns is necessarily a fine line to walk, not least since relations of reciprocal trust have had to be established. Nonetheless giving and taking criticism is part of a healthy and mature relationship.

Bringing these principles to bear on Australia-China relations will obviously require different kinds of activities for government(s) and individuals. In all cases though there needs to be both knowledge of and about China. There is a need for greater investment in China Studies and Chinese language programs. These are going to be needed even more in the future than they have been in the past. Extreme specialisation is clearly not mandatory, but there should be a general encouragement for people to learn about China and possibly even some Chinese regardless of their profession or industry so that they can be involved in future interactions with some greater hope of both understanding and success in their careers.

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