China has put the US in the “too hard” basket

Apr 18, 2023
Crown keep calm.

“Keep Calm and Carry On” posters should be put up in all Canberra government departments. The British Ministry of Information produced the original of this meme in 1939 to prevent public panic about widely predicted German air attacks. A new version is needed in Australia in 2023 to counter fears of imminent invasion and subversion by China.

The current panic can be traced back to fears of a “silent invasion” that circulated in 2017. The coalition government for whatever reason aimed for political mileage by whipping up anti-China hysteria. This peaked in 2020 when former Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an international inquiry into the origin of the Covid pandemic. This in turn provoked tit-for-tat trade measures from China and belligerent responses from wolf warriors. Then events spiralled almost out of control, Australia got caught up in a worsening US-China relationship, and all sides resorted to the slogan, “Now Panic and Freak Out”.

At the National Congress of the Communist Party of China late last year and the National People’s Congress recently concluded, important new policy directions have emerged. President Xi Jinping has consolidated his leadership position, brought a new broom to the management of international relations, and ended domestic isolation policies originally introduced to control the spread of the pandemic. He is also determined to revive a flagging domestic economy.

Since then there have been many signs of these changes taking effect. Leaving relations with the US on one side in the too-hard basket, Beijing is seeking to open up to the rest of the world. There have been top-level visits from Spain, Singapore, Malaysia, France and Brazil, among others, all shoring up friendly relations that do not depend on American support. Brokering a peace plan between Saudi Arabia and Iran and outlining a peace plan to settle the Ukraine war has presented China to the world as a potential solution to global problems rather than a cause of conflict. The Global South, with which China aligns itself, is not preoccupied with the adversarial US-China relationship but rather focusses on the urgency of resolving global economic problems.

Meanwhile in Australia, our economy has suffered major damage from the downturn in relations with China. Beijing has cracked down hard on Australian trade and reacted strongly to measures such as the 2018 foreign interference laws. Until recently, when Australia was mentioned in Chinese media, it was painted as an unfriendly country. However, even though some people in Canberra and some sections of the national press outdid their counterparts in Beijing in animosity, there were already signs last year that the Chinese side was ready for change. The change of government presented such an opportunity, and the new Ambassador, Xiao Qian, was quick to take advantage of the situation.

Speaking at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney, in June, and later in a speech to the National Press Club in August 2022, Xiao Qian extended an olive branch to the Australian government and referred to both sides “meeting halfway” to resolve outstanding problems. These overtures were reinforced in meetings between Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and President Xi in Bali in November, and between Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi in Beijing in December. This last meeting resulted in a Joint Outcomes Statement that has set the parameters for continuing exchanges in 2023, resurrecting the concept of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

The Australian mainstream media line on China all along was uniformly negative. None of these speeches and meetings was reported in a positive light. Words were twisted and taken out of context. China was depicted as aggressive and expansionary, and any friendship gestures were regarded as duplicitous. The slogan was Now Panic and Freak Out.

Disproving this negative press, positive results from these meetings quickly emerged. Chinese students have returned to our universities, business delegations are resuming, and tourist organisations are gearing for an influx of Chinese visitors over the northern summer holidays. Chinese Australian families have been able to visit and re-establish contacts. Talks on overcoming trade impediments were held at China’s Boao Forum in March, reconvening after a long break due to the pandemic. Temporary reprieve has now been given to barley exports, one of several major trade issues awaiting resolution. Trade Minister Don Farrell seems set to visit China in the near future, and there is talk of a Prime Ministerial visit later in the year.

Relations are still rocky. Communication between China and Australia having been cut off for many months, has to be restarted. Trust has been lost on both sides. At this sensitive time, the important thing is not to avoid uncalled-for negativity while also not going overboard with too much enthusiasm. Neither side should smooth over differences, which are certainly substantial. Both should listen to experienced and knowledgeable advisors. Policy should be based on reason, not on panic.

Hugh White has consistently warned of the dangers of picking sides in the US-China dispute, and he repeats this in his essay in the latest Monthly. He proposes instead that we should focus on desired outcomes. He frames his argument in terms of geopolitics, strategic equilibrium, and the need to boost regional alliances and reduce the risk of conflict. These are important, but there are also direct, more immediate, and more solid benefits to our economy and society in prospect, if we can just Keep Calm and Carry On.


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