Engaging with China despite rising tensions

Oct 15, 2023

The challenges of engagement when international tensions rise go beyond defence and security considerations. The benefits, however, are vitally important and deserve continued investment. It is essential therefore to consider carefully the terms of engagement – the sometimes conflicting principles that should guide engagement.

Senior public servants, past and present, together with eminent scholars, gathered recently to hear a call for continued engagement with China despite recent international tensions. The occasion was the launch by Dennis Richardson AC, former DFAT and Defence Secretary and ASIO Director, of a book, Dilemmas in Public Management in Greater China and Australia: Rising Tensions but Common Challenges. Richardson was supported by ANU Vice Chancellor, Brian Schmidt AC, and current DFAT Secretary, Jan Adams AO PSM. The presence of senior diplomats from the Chinese Embassy demonstrated the desire for continued engagement comes from both sides.

The book, which I co-edited, is the latest and largest product of the Greater China Australia Dialogue on Public Administration, a collaboration amongst scholars from across Greater China including Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as Mainland China together with Australia that began more than a decade ago.

The context of this latest book is rising international tensions, particularly between the People’s Republic of China and Australia. That has shifted the emphasis from the previous focus on common challenges and opportunities for cross-border learning, to highlight and try to explain, the differences – many quite fundamental and sharpening – in public administration institutions, ideologies and cultures in mainland China, Taiwan and Australia.

These tensions also affect scholarly engagement itself, presenting challenges for the Dialogue in recent years.

The American Society for Public Administration earlier this year issued useful guidance on how to engage internationally while respecting academic freedom and other core values. It presents no simple rules, recognising that reasonable people may disagree about the right course of action. But it emphasises that there is an obligation to think carefully.

Seven key values need to be upheld and balanced:

  • Promoting dialogue and understanding;
  • Protecting academic freedom; Respect for human rights;
  • Supporting the development of scholarly capacity;
  • Respect for self-determination by communities;
  • Protecting the safety and dignity of colleagues;
  • Accuracy, fairness and transparency of decision-making.

The Dialogue has operated consistently with these values, though it has never articulated them. Academic freedom has been protected while great care has been taken to improve understanding, support the development of scholarly capacity and respect differences in public administration approaches.

The opening and closing chapters of the book both suggest that ‘it’s complicated’ when trying to assess current directions in China. Xi Jinping is strengthening the role of the Chinese Communist Party and constraining human rights and academic freedom. But his reforms are also improving public services, addressing corruption, improving environmental protection, enhancing financial accountability and building modern regulatory frameworks.

A chapter by Richard Hu from the University of Canberra on Hong Kong and China’s ‘One Country Two Systems’ policy demonstrates the complexity involved in assessing developments in China. We may and should decry Hong Kong’s loss of democratic rights, but there was and is no way of retaining a totally separate Hong Kong. Hong Kong is now part of a huge conurbation, dwarfed by Shenzhen and Guangdong and increasingly integrated with Macau.

In the final chapter, I express the hope that China will become increasingly aware of the downsides of its recent strengthening of Party control, including for economic growth and prosperity as well as for human rights and academic freedom. Also, that it will in time recognise the benefits of a pluralist society with checks and balances. But we cannot afford to be naïve, and we must accept that China will remain different even if there was to be a return to some of the previous ‘opening up’ agendas.

It is also important that Australia acknowledges its own recent lapses in good governance and takes seriously the need to address integrity as well as performance.

The truth is that comparative studies such as those conducted by the Dialogue encourage as much reflection on one’s own country’s policies and practices as those of the other country.

The book covers a lot of ground: intergovernmental relations, budgeting and financial management, the civil service, and service delivery particularly aged care.

In each area, recent developments are explored and likely future directions identified. Chapters detail developments in each jurisdiction, while introductions to each section draw out differences and similarities.

Those only interested in Australia, or the PRC or Taiwan, will find detailed chapters of interest. Amongst the chapters on Australia are ones reviewing developments in federal relations, post-COVID budget challenges, evaluation within DFAT, the impact of politicisation and externalisation on APS capability, service delivery reform and the challenges of providing and sustaining quality aged care.

The book also attempts to compare developments, to see how all three jurisdictions are adjusting to international economic, social and technological forces.

Despite recent tensions, the chapters provide evidence of both common challenges and the influence of international trends, some positive and some negative:

China may claim that it rejects Western liberal ideas, but its reforms still reveal a desire for improved accountability and responsiveness to citizens’ needs and preferences, drawing on experience in developed countries such as Australia;

Australia may, with justification, criticise China’s authoritarianism, but it too has in recent years experienced excessive politicisation at the expense of impartial administration of the law.

As Dennis Richardson emphasised, it is also vital that Australia invest in understanding how government works in China, how it is grappling with common as well as unique challenges. China too should invest in understanding how government works in Australia with which it has strong economic and social ties. Our longstanding diplomatic relations also warrant continued investment.

Engagement is vital, despite international tensions. Indeed, arguably, engagement is more important when such tensions exist; but care is needed to get the engagement right.


First published in The Canberra Times September 18, 2023

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