Bad relations with China are not in Australia’s interests

Dec 4, 2020

Our leaders tell us continually that they will stand up to China on behalf of Australia’s interests. But I cannot see how the deteriorating relations with what is still our largest trading partner serves Australia’s interests in any way. Moreover, Australians should understand that what looks like standing up to China to us often looks to Chinese like provocation.

The last week has seen an acceleration of the downward spiral of Australia-China relations. The Chinese are imposing killing tariffs on our wine and barley, with accusations of dumping. Meanwhile, the wolf warrior journalists are insulting Australia, even its military forces. All this is extremely unfortunate and indefensible. However, I still believe strongly that we should try to bring our relationship back on an even keel and doubt that China wants to cut Australia off altogether.

On 30 November 2020, Robert Gottliebsen, business columnist for The Australian, a newspaper nobody could accuse of being favourably biased towards China, wrote as follows. “From President Xi Jinping down, the Chinese are angry at what they regard as iron ore price gouging by the Australians. They are working feverishly to lessen dependence on Australia.” In other words, this sense of economic injustice cuts both ways. I think it is naïve to assume that, because Australians are convinced that Australian iron ore is the best for China, they are not looking for alternative markets, just as Australian producers are doing for products such as barley, wine and lobsters.­

It’s my experience that Chinese look at the world in a way that suits their own point of view, not ours, that their assumptions are not necessarily the same as ours. Most importantly, they are very proud of China, its culture and even its contemporary achievements and don’t like to see these belittled or insulted.

The Australian-led demand for an enquiry into the origin and spread of the coronavirus seems obviously desirable from the point of view of the Australian government and mainstream press. How absurd to oppose it! From the point of view of China, it looked like an attempt to blame them for the pandemic, an accusation of a terrible crime costing millions of lives and ruining many economies. My own point of view is that it was unnecessary and provocative, even self-righteous, for Australia to lead the insistence on this enquiry, which was always going to happen anyway.

Just as in this case, China is sometimes more reactive than it seems. Early in September, the ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith pulled out of China leaving no accredited Australia media journalists on the ground for the first time since the mid-1970s. Reports said they were in danger of arrest, showing how irrational the Chinese authorities are. Then we found that ASIO had been tracking Chinese journalists and academics. They had even revoked the visas of two academics, Li Jianjun and Chen Hong, regarding them as threats to Australia’s national security. Maybe I have a conflict of interest, since both are good friends of mine, but I regard the suggestion that they are threats to Australia as totally ridiculous. The action over Birtles and Smith was reactive, not proactive.

When wolf warrior spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted a political cartoon accusing the Australian soldiers of gross cruelty in Afghanistan it had already attracted 20,000 “likes” from Chinese viewers. As Morrison and the ALP rightly responded, it was insensitive and insulting. But considering the Brereton report acknowledged happenings similar to what the tweet suggested, it was no more insensitive than our implicit accusation of China’s treachery in starting the pandemic.

Why should 20,000 people like such a tweet? I think it is because they are so tired of being lectured by the West, especially Australia, about their human rights deficiencies. It’s like saying, “you are hypocritical, you lecture us about human rights abuses, but are guilty yourself.” Of course, most Australians would not see a parallel. After all, Australia had a lengthy enquiry before delivering this report and has been open about the murders of 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian troops. Difference of assumptions and viewpoints does not justify the Chinese attitudes but does help explain them.

The mainstream media reacted with extreme hostility to China over Zhao’s action. Actually, it seemed to me in some quarters to border on glee, as if to say “look, how contemptible, immoral and untrustworthy these Chinese are, we told you so, it might be best to decouple!”. Personally, I think this is not a helpful attitude. Hatred has already bred hatred, and more hatred can only deepen the quagmire. Trust takes years to build and seconds to destroy.

I think it will definitely look like a provocation to take China to the World Trade Organization, as has been suggested, and I doubt it will serve any useful purpose. Most of all,

I am seriously worried about the Foreign Interference Law currently being introduced into Parliament, with the support of the ALP. If it demands that all dealings with foreign countries by states and universities be approved by the Commonwealth, it is going to be obvious to the Chinese that it is aimed against them. Why else would people mention only Victoria’s signing up to the Belt and Road Initiative and universities needing Commonwealth approval before agreeing to Confucius Institutes? This law, which says it aims at national security, seems totally unnecessary and provocative to me.

Late in August, Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg decided to block a proposed purchase of Australia’s Lion Dairy by the Chinese dairy company Mengniu. In doing so he overrode the Foreign Investment Review Board, saying his grounds were “food security”. Of course, Mengniu felt greatly insulted and withdrew.

To me it looks hypocritical for the Australian government to be so obsessed with its own national security that the Treasurer even blocks a food company investment on these grounds, but at the same time scoff at and denounce China for its obsession with national security in Hong Kong. Considering China’s restraint at month after month of demonstrations in Hong Kong that were aided and abetted by the US and Britain, among other countries, and then turned into demonstrations unfurling the US flag and quite clearly asking for Hong Kong independence, I don’t find it surprising that the Chinese leaders felt China’s security was threatened.

I realize that the mainstream press in Australia has tried to belittle the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership signed in November and including all the countries of East and South-east Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand. On the other hand, surely such a large-scale agreement that includes China, Japan and Korea has a good deal of potential. A Global Times article of 26 November by Chilean scholar and diplomat Jorge Heine writes that for the three Asian economic heavyweights to have “joined such an economic group despite their ongoing differences is historical”. Heine, whom I know and trust for his experience and knowledge, argues that it demonstrates China’s strong commitment to a regional future and that the world economic and political centre of gravity is moving towards Eastern Asia. I think Australia would do well to profit from it, both politically and economically, even using it as a basis to try to improve relations with China.

So will the Biden Administration make any difference to solving the quagmire where we find ourselves? I think it will, but I’m not particularly optimistic how much. But one thing will change. The sinister and dangerous Mike Pompeo will no longer have real authority in going around the world pushing his crusade against the Chinese Communist Party, or what on 11 November he described as the “Marxist-Leninist monster”. He and the Trump Administration may try to stir up as much hatred and trouble on the way out of office (or even after) as they can. But the fact that he will carry much less weight will be a relief. Can anybody be surprised that China finds such “crusades” threatening?

Under the Biden Administration, Australia will be able to deal with China and the US on many multilateral matters, and it is even possible that trade will be facilitated.

There are a couple of good signs, as suggested above. However, Australia-China relations are now at such a low ebb that I cannot see a way out for the near future. Just at present the wolf warrior diplomats are definitely hostile towards Australia. I think this could well be temporary. Certainly, we should not cast unnecessary provocations towards China and do our utmost to restore a situation that accords with our interests better than at present. Although I can see that Morrison has to act in a way that appeals to the Australian public, it is just not sensible or in Australia’s interests for him to throw his weight around in a way that strengthens already rampant Sinophobia.

COLIN MACKERRAS, AO, FAHA is Professor Emeritus at Griffith University, Queensland. He has visited and worked in China many times, during the first working as a teacher of English from 1964 to 1966 at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. He is a specialist on Chinese history, theatre, minority nationalities, Western images of China and Australia-China relations and has written widely on all topics. His many books include Western Perspectives on the People’s Republic of China, Politics, Economy and Society, World Scientific Publishing, Singapore, 2015.


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