It is easy for governments to disguise their inability to manage complex relationships by resorting to finger-pointing and name-calling.
That’s what Australia did in calling for an ‘independent international inquiry’ into the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan when it would have been smarter to see China as part of the solution rather than simply the cause of the problem. To have backed China in rather than singling China out might have been a much shrewder tactic.
There is no doubt that China has behaved badly in recent years. Ham-fisted diplomacy and aggression, whether in the South China Sea, on the Indian border or parcelling out political donations, is as much a product of inflexibility and inexperience as it is of ambition. But the more unfocused energy Australia expends on these issues, important though they are, the more impotent Australia will appear. And the less effective Australia’s calls are, the more excited our public rhetoric will become.
The stridency that distinguishes contemporary government pronouncements on China and Australia’s relationship with China is alarmist and alarming. Over-investment in emotion, however, usually masks an under-investment in thinking.
In its 2020 poll, the Lowy Institute identified a ‘precipitous’ drop in Australian trust towards China, though the results also reflect some conflicted attitudes. To what extent this is a consequence of China’s actions on the global and domestic stage or a consequence of the government’s amped-up rhetoric, is difficult to tell. Perhaps a bit of both. But what it does suggest is the need for a better-informed public, which in turn requires a better-informed government.
No one outside government knows exactly what China expertise exists within the intelligence and policy bodies advising government, how many experts there are, or what their expertise might be. If the government’s policy pronouncements are any guide, however, capability and competence are modest.
Australia is certainly not well endowed when it comes to publicly available sources of knowledge and advice on how to manage an international relationship as complex as that between Australia and China. We are reaping what we have sowed: decades of chronic underinvestment in tertiary level teaching and research into China’s contemporary culture, politics and society, backed up by in-depth tuition in Mandarin.
Language is the key window into culture, and our defiant monolingualism is a serious contributor to our general ignorance of all things Asian.
While there is an increasing number of China-born Mandarin speakers in Australia, the number of non-Chinese heritage Mandarin speakers with high levels of proficiency is extremely low. An ‘educated guess’ suggests that there may be no more than 130 such Mandarin speakers in Australia. When it is then difficult to identify more than twenty individuals in Australia who are recognised contemporary China experts, the poverty of Australia’s China expertise becomes clear. And when all of that is put in the context of almost no specialist school for training China politics and international relations specialists, the situation is even more dire.
The hyperbole that surrounds the so-called ‘China debate’ in Australia often represents the issue as a choice between one or both of two confected binaries. Australia must ultimately choose either Washington or Beijing. Alternatively, Australia must choose to ‘stand and fight’, defending its sovereignty, or it must ‘surrender’. The issue is not, however, one of sovereignty or surrender, because Australia retains its agency. We can choose to amplify contested issues, or we can choose to deal with them in a way that is both measured and resolute.
That is generally how our Asian neighbours approach the problem. With an experience of China that reaches back millennia, China’s Asian neighbours have learned the difference between accommodation and appeasement. They’re skilled at the former and eschew the latter. Like them, Australia must learn to act clearly in its own interests, and not be the creature of some other great power.
Bloviation and stridency are not signs of strength, any more than deliberation and measure are signs of weakness. We need a more considered and deliberate approach to the relationship with China if we are to avoid the pitfalls of over-reaction and realise the opportunities that a managed engagement with China will inevitably bring. This means investing in professional expertise in the management of the Australia-China relationship and promoting the independence of specialist China commentators.
Just as China would do well to take the advice of the former Chinese Ambassador to Australia, Fu Ying, to uphold “the spirit of humility and tolerance, and adhere to communication, learning and openness”, Australia would do well to follow suit.
Allan Behm is head of the International and Security Affairs Program at the Australia Institute, Canberra. The published version of his discussion paper can be found at