Living with China: There is a way, but is there a will? Part 1

There is a growing sense that it’s time to step off the merry-go-round of China bashing and the Australia bashing that inevitably follows. But what is to take its place? Many would like to see a more solid foundation for our relationship with China. But what would this look like in practice? And how well equipped are we for the task?

In the absence of new ideas and more imaginative leadership, anti-China sentiment in Australia risks becoming a national pastime. China is regularly portrayed as a ‘global bully’ engaging in ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. Its actions are described as ‘provocative’, ‘expansionist’, ‘aggressive’, reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Its handling of Covid-19 is said to be ‘negligent’, lacking in transparency and largely responsible for the global outbreak.

Businesses keen to cultivate good relations with China are dismissed as ‘thoroughly discredited’. Victoria’s Premier is being pilloried for wanting his State to develop its economic links with China under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Influential voices are calling on Australia to join a new Cold War against China.

For its part, the Morrison government uses less inflammatory language, but the message is much the same. Expressions of concern, displeasure and disappointment, interlaced with references to the need for a rules-based international order, are now part of the daily mantra.

The sub-text is clear – the rules government ministers have in mind are those that reflect Western preferences and serve Western interests. They concede the importance of the economic relationship with China but take access to the Chinese market for granted, and impose severe restrictions on foreign investment, aimed largely at China. They invariably point to our ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ with China, but fail to explain what, if anything, the partnership has achieved so far, or what is strategic about it.

And, when China policy (or the absence of it) reaches a dead end, as it has done in recent months, they simply claim to be acting in the national interest. But what is the national interest? There is no national consensus on what it means or how it is to be pursued. At best, the national interest, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. At worst, it is the ultimate refuge of scoundrels intent on concealing their mistakes and lack of judgment.

The dangers and inconsistencies of such vacuous statements and policies have been exposed time and again, not least in these pages. But somehow little or nothing changes. Why is it so?

For many reasons, but one stands out.

The political class thinks it can ride out the present storm because the electorate cannot see through the innuendos and half-truths and, more to the point, because no alternative is on offer. It is one thing to lament the inadequacies of existing policies as many are wont to do, and quite another to spell out what an alternative approach looks like.

Admittedly, envisioning a different relationship with this new economic giant is no easy task. The Chinese government’s actions at home and abroad are certainly not beyond reproach. Its heavy-handed treatment of its own minorities, its ham-fisted law and order approach to Hong Kong’s status, its understandable but unfortunate commitment to the continued build-up of its armed forces, its desire to use the political muscle that comes with its economic rise, its troubling use of state of the art surveillance technologies, all this and more makes the task doubly difficult, yet not impossible.

To embark on this task requires us first to look squarely at Australia’s situation. Whether we like it or not, over the coming decade China will play a big part in Australia’s future, as it will in the region’s and the world’s future. Despite Covid-19, China’s economic rise will continue to gather pace.

According to the World Bank Report issued this month, growth in China will slow down appreciably in 2020 but still record a growth of 1 percent, before rebounding to 6.9 percent in 2021. The downturn in Europe and North America will be steeper, and only partially offset by next year’s expected rebound. China will remain the main catalyst of East Asia’s economic integration. By 2030, its economy, measured in terms of purchasing parity power, is expected to be twice the size of the US economy.

The centre of economic gravity is inexorably shifting from West to East, and China will remain the epicentre of this shift. This is no mere economic shift. It is also a geopolitical and civilisational shift. The West-centric world, in which first Europe and then the United States held sway is rapidly giving way to a multi-civilisational world, and this has immense implications for Australia.

Our relations with Asia over the last two hundred years have been largely a product of our dependence on two ‘great and powerful friends’: first Britain, and then the United States. For several decades now, we have gone out of our way to align ourselves as closely as possible with US strategic and diplomatic priorities.

We have repeatedly despatched our forces in support of US military interventions from Korea, to Vietnam, to Afghanistan and the Middle East, and now to the South China Sea. Our military procurement policies and the structure and function of our armed forces and intelligence services have all rested on the assumption that to safeguard Australian security our only option is to be America’s faithful ally.

Underpinning our military alignments has been a generous dose of racism or at least cultural xenophobia – a deep-seated sentiment that our friends are necessarily located in the West and our enemies in the East. Governments invariably justify this option by proclaiming their commitment to the West’s democratic values, honoured as much in the breach as in the observance. But scratch a little below the surface, and racial prejudice soon rears its ugly head.

The White Australia policy which encapsulated this view of the world has been largely set aside when it comes to our immigration policies, but it remains alive and well in our foreign and security policies. With the shift to a multi-civilisational world, this glaring failure to reconcile our history and geography is no longer sustainable

Where to begin? The first step, admittedly a challenging one, is to recognise that Asia generally, and China in particular, will play an increasingly influential role in every facet of life in this country – this includes the economy, immigration, education, environment and much else. Simply put, we have to develop a cooperative, comprehensive and respectful relationship with a part of the world from which, despite its geographical proximity, we remain relatively distant, culturally and politically.

Much thought will need to be given to how we balance our ties with the West and with the East. This means, in part, rethinking our current strategic alignment with and dependence on the United States.

We would still wish to cooperate closely with the United States, consult extensively with US administrations, and engage in a range of mutually beneficial economic, cultural, educational and other links. However, we would not be following the United States in any further military expeditions unless authorised by the United Nations Security Council. Of course, this is but one element of an alliance which now permeates the entire framework of Australia’s security policies at home and abroad.

Seventy years after the signing of the ANZUS Treaty (September 1951) would seem an appropriate time to establish a wide-ranging public inquiry into the workings of the alliance and its relevance to future regional and global security. The inquiry would be part of a larger project designed to bring Australia’s international engagements closely into line with internationalist principles. This would include a strong commitment to the reform and strengthening of both multilateral institutions and the international legal regime, notably with regard to human rights, nuclear and conventional disarmament, poverty reduction and protection of the environment.

The purpose of the entire exercise would be to break from two centuries of dependence on ‘great and powerful friends’. The civilisational shift now in full swing is not an invitation to exchange one alliance for another, to wit the current alliance with the United States for an alliance with an emerging Asian centre of power, be it China or India.

We have instead an unparalleled opportunity to discard the tendency to side with one great power and against another. We can explore avenues for active consultation and cooperation with all centres of power, while reserving the right to take issue with and oppose any of their actions or pronouncements when these are contrary to the principles and purposes of the United Nations.

Let us, however, be clear. This reorientation of Australia’s place in the world, necessary as it is, does not amount to a China policy. It simply establishes a framework which makes it possible to think through and develop the directions and initiatives that can breathe life into the Australia-China relationship. It is to this task that Part 2 turns its attention tomorrow.

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Joseph Camilleri is managing director of Alexandria Agenda, Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences.

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