Between the Lines on China: Geoff Raby

Transcript of Geoff Raby’s appearance on Tom Switzer’s Between the Lines on ABC.

Firstly, your thoughts about Beijing’s response to Australia in recent weeks: the list of 14 complaints, the wine tariffs and, of course, that tweet?

It looks as if China has decided to up the ante.  Disappointing to see the sleights after PM’s two constructive statements last week.  These are not, however, all the same thing and not necessarily coordinated.  14 points (was) clearly freelancing eg. ‘leak’ from Embassy and all these things (were)well known; wine tariffs were on course under a process that had been announced some time ago; the tweet was already independently circulating on social media and Zhao from the FM(has) done this type of thing before, eg. against the US on Covid.

But coming together like this raises the temperature and makes it much more difficult to find a path back to a calmer more normal relationship.  We’re just colliding around banging off each other in what is looking increasingly a random pattern.

When China does things like this, doesn’t it make it harder for people like you, Hugh White, Bob Carr, Paul Keating to make the case that Australia should try to rebuild trust with China?

You might like to add Gareth Evans and many others . . .

It certainly creates greater hysteria in Australia and the media and makes rational policy development much more difficult.  It also strengthens the position of those who argue that Australia needs to get used to bad relations with China as part of our normal condition.

China is responding to show us what that might be like.  The question, then, is whether this is the best way to advance our interests?

It also begs the question what is it that we have done to so raise China’s ire?

Aren’t all great powers ruthless, and that includes the US and China? They play hardball at every turn and the stronger China gets, the more it will throw its weight around. To the extent this realist analysis is correct, how will we solve this problem?

These points you make are correct and that is the point of my book.

It is inevitably an asymmetrical relationship.  We need to understand that and then work out how we deal with it. The last section of my book, Australia’s Dystopian Future is about just that.  We need to be more disciplined in what and how we say things – not gratuitously cause offence or make the leadership in Beijing lose face – and we need to invest more heavily in diplomacy.

Why do you think the Chinese Communist Party is picking on us?

I think it is the Chinese Government you’re referring to.  We embarked on tit-for-tat retaliation against China in response to China’s abrasive comments on the PM’s unilateral call for an inquiry into Covid back in March.  This included on foreign investment, ASIO harassment of Chinese accredited journalists, and denying visas to a couple of academics and delaying the processing of student visas, and repeated publicly unsubstantiated accusation of cyberattack.

It is a good question because in the hysteria of domestic reaction here in Australia it is seldom asked what we may have done to be on the receiving end of this.

Even your use of loaded phrase “picking on” reinforces the poor victim mentality that the Prime Minister and officials are eager to project.  The victim mentality has taken hold.

It might be more useful to ask why has Australia become an outlier in its relations with China among Australia’s democratic peers, some of whom have much vexed historical and territorial issues to manage with China, but seem to be able to conduct their affairs normally.

Should Australia think about how to reduce our exposure to China?

Already is . . . but the reality that this will only happen on the margins unless Australian’s are prepared for a substantial reduction in living standards.

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Geoff Raby AO is an Australian economist and diplomat. He served as the Australian Ambassador to the People's Republic of China from February 2007 until August 2011.

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