GEOFF RABY. The China Threat leads to dead ends (Australian Financial Review, 29 October 2019)

The Australia-China relationship is at its lowest point since diplomatic relations began 46 years ago.  This is something the Australian Government doesn’t wish to discuss.  Its diplomats are paid to put a positive spin on things.  Elements of the conservative populist media almost rejoice in this state of affairs.

These days official national-level contact has effectively been frozen.  This is what China does to show its official displeasure.  The last bilateral visit was when the Chinese visited Australia early in 2017.

Ever since Bob Hawke embraced China’s vision of reform and understood what it could mean for Australia, both sides had endeavoured to maintain annual high-level exchanges.  Never before has Australia been denied access to the highest levels of the Chinese political system as it has been for the past nearly three years.

Prime Minister Morrison’s recent meeting in Jakarta, on the sidelines of the inauguration of the Indonesian President, with Vice President Wang Qi Shan, does not mark a thaw.  Wang is only number four in protocol order.  More importantly, he is not a member of China’s key ruling group, the seven-member Standing Committee of the Central Committee.

It says much about the relationship that this was the best Australia could achieve for a recently elected Prime Minister of Australia.  For the obsessively protocol conscious Chinese Government, it was just short of giving Australia a diplomatic rhubarb.

Within the small and tight Canberra policy circle, where the security-intelligence-military establishment dominates China policy, this might be seen as a badge of honour.  The prevalent view is that Australia needs to do nothing to restore more normal and constructive relations with China.

Australia is said to be in nothing less than a long-term struggle with China to define the future terms of the relationship.   Business people who urge the Government to do more to improve relations are casually dismissed as self-serving, as if concern about the economic impact of a dysfunctional relationship were illegitimate.  Academics are simply naïve, or worse.

In this view, China is seen as the cause of protracted difficulties in the relationship through its aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, bullying of other states – as it is doing to Australia and other neighbours with whom it has disagreements – purported cyber-attacks by state-sponsored actors, technology theft, and political interference in domestic politics and on university campuses.

These are the external and internal elements of the China Threat which reinforce each other to create a powerful narrative.  The domestic dimension feeds the narrative that China must be pushed back in foreign policy and bad behaviour by China internationally is used to support the need for greater vigilance domestically.

The narrative has been used to justify one of Australia’s more spectacular own-goals in foreign policy when it introduced a blanket ban on the Chinese telecoms company Huawei participating in any aspect of building the 5G network, something most others in the “five eyes” have not done.  Germany, whose Chancellor’s personal phone was hacked by the US, has said that Huawei is welcome to participate.

It may or may not be technically feasible to protect the sensitive elements of the network but there was no need for Australia alone to make Beijing loose face, set off a populist nationalist reaction, and deny itself potential commercial benefits.

The China Threat narrative in Australia has pushed policy to the fringes internationally.  At the Commonwealth level Australia views Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as an attempt to impose a Sino-centric order on the world.  Much of the rest of the world is more open to its potential benefits, while of course being alert to its potential risks.

Some 152 countries, include 18 from Europe, have signed relevant memoranda of understanding to participate in the BRI.  International bodies, including UN Agencies, also participate.  BRI is a loose association established by non-binding memoranda of understanding.  They impose no binding obligations on signatories or involve surrendering any sovereignty.  Opposition to BRI in Australia is principally ideological.

The Andrews Government in Victoria should be congratulated on having the clear-eyed vision to recognise that BRI poses no threat to Australia’s national interest and offers potential benefits to Victoria.  The more Canberra’s position is at odds with reality, the more likely it will be that other state governments will follow Victoria’s lead.

With bilateral trade is at a record, it may seem that the current state of bilateral relations holds no consequences for Australia.  But the relationship with China is not just about trade, although that is a key national interest.

To advance Australia’s interests internationally requires either China’s support or acquiescence, be it climate change, energy security, disarmament, ant-piracy at sea, and other asymmetrical security threats including, people smuggling.

If we wish to reflect the Australian communities concern over Hong Kong if that should become necessary, or human rights of the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, at present we have nothing other than megaphone diplomacy which is usually counterproductive. It is time for diplomats to be put back in charge of our foreign policy on China.

Geoff Raby is a former Australian ambassador to China.

This is an edited extract from the Annual La Trobe China Oration to be delivered 6pm 29 October.


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4 Responses to GEOFF RABY. The China Threat leads to dead ends (Australian Financial Review, 29 October 2019)

  1. Sam Gibbs says:

    Let those that live without sin cast the first stone!
    Australia’s once exemplary record of human rights is now a stinking pile of hypocrisy.
    This woman, nor any of her fascist colleagues earned the right to criticize others. She would do better to sanctify Australia’s disgusting legacy of human rights abuses by supporting the Chinese. Frankly speaking I can’t differentiate between the two countries.

  2. Anthony Pun says:

    “The domestic dimension feeds the narrative that China must be pushed back in foreign policy and bad behaviour by China internationally is used to support the need for greater vigilance domestically”. – totally agree!
    And on human rights utterance of FM Marise Payne, it becomes more evident like Trump feeding his base!
    Story: Australia will take ‘a firm stand’ in rapidly changing global relations, Foreign Affairs Minister says (SMH media blog comment published 29Oct2019)
    Our Australian human rights record is not exactly pristine and the world would judge that the criticism of China by Australia bears no weight or influence as these reports quoted below will no doubt earned us the reputation of having double standards, and our statements could be could be perceived as too righteous and hypocritical.
    United Nations to investigate potential human rights abuses in Australia: (1) Case of an intellectually impaired Indigenous boy kept naked in a Brisbane watch house. (2) Four Corners revealed several cases where children as young as 10 were being held in adult watch houses for weeks on end, one was placed in isolation for 23 days.
    UN body says Australia breached human rights laws and needs to review Migration Act
    Why does international condemnation on human rights mean so little to Australia?
    Remember John 8:7 – “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”
    China is not perfect and should be reminded about human rights, but this strident, rhetoric and empty criticism does more harm than good.

    • George Kruszewski says:

      I was lucky to be a friend of the late Reginald Little, former diplomat and top Confucian scholar. Reg lamented that Australians are ignorant of Asian history, culture & values. Generations have been dumbed down by Anglo centric refusal to teach Asian history & culture in schools. Multiculturalism has been trashed by Anglo divide and rule thinking, akin to Brexit xenophobia. Australia should thrive on BRI and Asean trade like a clever bigger Singapore.
      Our future prosperity lies in Asia, as trading partner not as a US vassal fighting long costly wars. It’s Time to recognise China as huge market reality & escape foolish US war games.

  3. R. N. England says:

    The world culture is becoming less Anglo and more Chinese. Anglo-nationalism sees that as a threat, when in fact it is good for civilisation. The Anglo-culture, after a century of American dominance, is now overwhelmingly a crap culture, destroying the US and the UK right in front of the eyes of the world. Science, the key to the success of the Anglo-culture in past centuries, is the only part of it worth hanging onto. China’s embrace of science, and the intellectual good deals inherent in its publication, linked with the good deals it offers the world in trade, are drawing the world culture and that of its oldest civilisation closer together. What is good for the world culture, Anglo-nationalism sees as a threat. The 21st-century Anglo-culture, with greed, xenophobia, and chaos in its heart, is the real threat.

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