GEOFF RABY.  Beijing’s Own Goal on Hastie and Johnson (Australian Financial Review, 21 November 2019)

These days there is never a dull moment in Australia-China relations.  After a seeming slight thaw with the recent meeting between Prime Minister Morrison and Premier LI Keqiang in Thailand on the margins of the recent ASEAN meeting, Beijing has now spectacularly kicked an own-goal.

The decision to deny Parliamentarians Andrew Hastie and James Patterson visas was poorly judged and will be utterly counter-productive.  Whether it was “inevitable” as Professor John Fitzgerald said in his Crikey piece this week is at least moot.

Over the years, very senior political figures including Kevin Rudd, during his first visit as Prime Minister in 2008, and then House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi during Obama’s term, visited China and expressed their concerns over human rights.  Many other high-profile political figures have done the same and, as Rudd does, continue to visit China unimpeded.

It is particularly odd as both are back benchers, although Hastie chairs the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.  Moreover, the visit was organised by China Matters, an NGO that seeks to promote understanding of the complexities of the Australia-China relationship and aims to be scrupulously objective in this.

Ironically and incorrectly, some of the more trenchant critics of China in Australia, such as Hastie, would regard China Matters as yet another body doing Beijing’s bidding.  It is to Hastie and Patterson’s credit that they would visit China at this time of such strain in the bilateral relationship and as a part of a China Matters delegation.

It is unlikely that had the visit gone ahead it would have changed the parliamentarian’s stance, but it may have demonstrated the complexities of contemporary China: a one-party, authoritarian state with a modern, technologically advanced, dynamic economy, supported by some of the world’s best infrastructure, with a burgeoning, internationally connected and informed middle class.

They would also have seen where Australia’s minerals, metals and food end up and no doubt have met former students educated in Australia among official and business interlocuters and met many who holiday in Australia.  In short, they would have experienced the basis for much of Australia’s current prosperity.

Without compromising their values or stepping back from their abhorrence at the party/state and its human rights record, they may have left thinking about former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s comments this week that China is the dominant economic power in the region, that it is a legitimate and growing power, and also happens to be utterly vital to Australia’s prosperity and interests and future well-being.

The difficulty for politicians who need to distil complexity into simplified messages is that China today defies simplification.  The tendency in Australian politics and media then is to treat China in Manichean terms – good versus evil, freedom versus repression, customer versus friend.

Alas, Beijing has blown an opportunity to better inform public discussion in Australia about how to manage the greatest existential foreign and security policy challenge since the British abandoned Australia to Japan when Singapore fell during World War Two.

In January, this column argued that China needed to find a more mature foreign policy which was commensurate with its rising power and influence in the world.  While recognising that Beijing’s hyper-sensitivity to criticism was attributable to the Communist Party’s historic anxieties about its own legitimacy, it was now time to move on and deal with criticism confidently.  If China is to be accepted as a great power, which its economic might supports, it must begin to behave like one.

Some, such as Professor Fitzgerald, would argue that the problem is structural.  The argument goes that for as long as China is ruled by the Communist Party it will always behave in this immature, belligerent way when criticised or challenged.

If policy towards China is premised on this view, then indeed nothing will change, and mutual trust becomes impossible to restore.  If so, the future of the relationship will be of increasing hostility.  It will also see us marginalised in our own region as China’s power grows and our neighbours adopt nuanced pragmatic policies with which to manage their relations with it.

The view that China’s bad behaviour on this occasion is just further evidence that the Communist Government of China can’t change its spots is akin to the view that prevailed throughout the first twenty years of China’s economic reforms that freely operating markets and private property were incompatible with a Communist Government and would not be allowed to form.  Of course, China has both and both have given China its economic vitality. This is understood and acknowledged within China.

Over the past 15 years, China’s foreign policy has been evolving rapidly.  It has become more assertive and muscular, creative and dynamic.  It is like the Curate’s Egg, some parts good and some parts bad.

It has been busy building multilateral institutions, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, while working more actively in existing organisations such as with its UN Peacekeeping contributions.  It has also asserted its interests more forcefully, as in the South China Sea.  Australian public discussion has focussed almost exclusively on this aspect of the rising power’s behaviour.

The response by the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to the childish refusal to permit the parliamentarians travel has been firm and proportionate.  Beijing will have achieved nothing by this action other than to harden views in Australia that China needs to be resisted at every turn.

This is a big mistake, especially at a time when the Australian Government has been trying to move public discussion in more constructive directions.  Beijing’s actions have done both it and Australia a great disservice.  In a world of Great Powers, however, Australia has again been reminded of the harsh realities we face in this new order.

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4 Responses to GEOFF RABY.  Beijing’s Own Goal on Hastie and Johnson (Australian Financial Review, 21 November 2019)

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    I quote: ” the complexities of contemporary China: a one-party, authoritarian state with a modern, technologically advanced, dynamic economy, supported by some of the world’s best infrastructure, with a burgeoning, internationally connected and informed middle class.”

    Geoff Raby, you – of all commentators – have committed a grave sin of omission.

    Why do you not mention – like all of your peers to the best of my knowledge – one fundamental Constitutional fact?

    That in March 2018 Xi Jinping became – at his Party’s behest – “President for Life”.

    In other words – an unconditional “Great Dictator”. Like Hitler in 1933.

    Mate – you’re in the very best of unadmitting company. Not one of your bureaucratic, political nor academic peers has yet done what you also yet haven’t.

    Why not? Particularly on this blog?

    Or do you consider this (ultimate) constitutional development so irrelevant/unimportant that it’s to be ignored, that it’s simply not worth the print of noting?

    You imply that this ignored development is significant: “Beijing’s actions have done both it and Australia a great disservice. In a world of Great Powers, however, Australia has again been reminded of the harsh realities we face in this new order.”

    As Australia was reminded 1936- 1939.

    I’d appreciate your honest, open, disclosive and (likely) governmental policy re-setting response.

  2. Anthony Pun says:

    Many thanks to Ambassador Geoff Raby for bringing on a discussion about the refusal to grant two Australian parliamentarians to visit China. It is good to debate about these issues.
    However, Ambassador Raby’s article sends the message that China’s action was inappropriate and although his intention was good, the language used is more akin to the usual US “China bashing” statements; an unexpected surprise coming from a former diplomat.
    The Chinese Australian community’s view on the matter has been aired publicly.
    “I am disappointed that China Matters showed no sensitivity or wisdom in promoting the visit of WA Liberal MP Andrew Hastie and Victorian Senator James Paterson. Hastie is a poor choice with his public “China Bashing” statements which resulted in xenophobic overtones affecting 1.2 million Chinese Australians. China Matter’s understanding of the Chinese culture is poor, and maybe China Does Not Matter is a more appropriate name. There are better choices!” (Online SMH media comment 16Nov2019)
    See: https://www.smh.com.au/national/western-australia/china-snubs-hastie-and-paterson-denies-entry-to-mps-planning-study-tour-20191115-p53b54.html
    A second comment was posted in FB recently:
    Talking about cultural perspective – when China rejected Liberal MPs Andrew Hastie and James Paterson’s applications for a study tour, there was a big hue & cry about China’s immature diplomacy & the communist, totalitarian regime. So it’s interesting to read charge d’affaires at the embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Canberra, Wang Xining’s perspective on the issue at The Australian’s Strategic Forum. He compared the spat over the Liberals’ criticisms of China’s record on human rights and its rising strategic power to an awkward family meal faux pas. “If somebody calls you a jerk publicly, and then he said privately, ‘I’m going to visit your house to learn about your family’, and then publicly he says, ‘His recipe about the noodles is not right’, I’m going to correct that. Doesn’t he need to do something before you welcome him at the threshold of your family?” As the ways things are, it looks like we are going to see more spats between the two countries. Hopefully the relationship is robust enough to help things over.
    In relation to China Matters, the following comments were made:
    The adage is ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, in this case by the organization’s title. Its aims/ulterior motives are more meaningful: Its title seems to suggest that it wants to study for understandings & for building bridges so that the knowledge can be used to help construct a ‘win-‘win’ strategy for Aust. foreign policy regarding China. However, by its action it seems its aim may be to build its brand/reputation to stir up controversies & hostilities about China to gain/top up special funding from a particular source. But whatever its aim is, it’s not very smart to send MPs with well-known political views to do study tour of China. Similarly, not to shoot oneself in the foot, no think-tank in Aust. is going to send anti-Islamic MPs to do study tour of Indonesia or Saudi Arabia; now that these countries are important export destinations for Aust. & its foreign policy.

    • Charles Lowe says:

      You know, Anthony, I sometimes have my hackles raised by what you post yet, occasionally, I do agree with the points that you make.

      In this case, my hackles are raised indeed.

      I agree with – and I admire – “Ambassador Raby’s article [which] sends the message that China’s action was inappropriate”. And I find your recitation of the FB post risible – and insulting of your judgement in quoting it.

      I add that I am ‘Leftist’. I am not normally a supporter of Rightists like Hastie and Patterson. On this matter, however, I endorse what I have heard of their public contributions. They are simply standing up for democracy.

      The Chinese response was grossly inappropriate. It was stupid. It was unthinking and it was robotic – reactionary, even. And I agree that our former distinguished Ambassador used his judgement wisely to tell the Chinese how incompetent and idiotic that particular diplomatic forey is.

      As I trust you will see – I go a lot further than Ambassador Raby. (I can – I don’t have his public profile!)

      You purport to represent the “Chinese-Australian community”. Really? Just exactly how can you back that up?

      Can you accept one fundamental Constitutional fact? That Xi Jinping was appointed “Leader for Life” in March 2018?

      Churchill, alone, opposed the then German “Leader for Life” 1937 – 1939.

      Do you wish us to repeat – not learn from – the mistakes of history?

  3. Colin Cook says:

    Geoff,
    I strongly recommend that you take time to see how often ASPI input – in the form of footage, ‘experts’ and ‘analysts’ – feature on ABC and SBS TV programs. ASPI – according to their website, receives major funding from global corporations whose major activities are weapons and warfare.
    ASPI can hardly justify their claim to be ‘independent’ but our national broadcasters seem to be placing great reliance on them as a source of China information. ASPI started as an advisor to government – now it has morphed into a staunchly anti-China ‘news’ source.

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