John Lander: Labor’s Herculean task on China-Australia relations

Jan 5, 2023
China and Australia flags
image: iStock

In an interview, John Lander outlines the “Herculean” task ahead to repair the China-Australia relationship. The odds are heavily stacked against Albanese and Wong, who will need both political courage and diplomatic skill to bring it off. But for Australia’s sake, bring it off they must.  Watch it here.

Commemorating fifty years of relations between China and Australia, John Lander, former Deputy Ambassador to China and Australia’s first Ambassador to the Republic of Iran discussed in an interview, how it was in his office in the early 70’s that he and his colleagues laid the groundwork to create the environment for recognition of the People’s Republic of China. But the task ahead, when asked what he thought Penny Wong’s chances of resetting relations between China and Australia would be, is “Herculean”.

It was touch and go back in 1971 as the Department worked on preparations for two options: one in which the Whitlam government won the election and relations could be opened with the People’s Republic of China; and another with the coalition government maintaining diplomatic ties with Taiwan’s Republic of China. But in December 1972 after 23 years in opposition, Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party won the election. His most notable first steps were the immediate withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam and, three weeks later, negotiating an Agreement to Establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China.

On why he thought Whitlam had taken this decision Lander surmised that the view of the Whitlam Government was that despite its impoverishment at the time, “China was a great civilisation… it made no sense at all for Australia as a minor, or even a mid-range player in the region, not to have dealings with China”.

Historically, we often think it was Kissinger who paved the way with secret visits and, no doubt, there’s some truth in that but what is less well-remembered was that, prior to Kissinger, Whitlam, as leader of the opposition publicly took the first “Western” political delegation to China in June 1971, three weeks before Kissinger’s secret visit, in July 1971. Even then, USA treated Australia as a much junior partner: “Despite the closeness of our relationship (with USA), we had been kept completely in the dark” said Lander, the then Australian Ambassador to the US was livid.

When asked if he was aware of the historical significance of his work, Lander reminisced that he was not. “I don’t think anybody anywhere expected the lightning speed with which China changed and advanced” he said. “We had no expectation it would rise so quickly; I certainly didn’t” he went on.

When considering the possibility of China attempting to influence other parts of the world towards Communism, Lander is clear: “China has been adamant since day one, that it sees no purpose to be served by trying to export their particular system”.

“We don’t matter much to China, but China matters enormously to us” Lander points out, referring to the fact that China has become Australia’s single most important trading partner but, in recent years, despite signing a Free Trade Agreement in 2015, things have changed.

It became increasingly difficult for the United States to compete with China on economic terms, so they do so militarily, and many of 800+ bases ranged from Japan, South Korea, Guam, The Philippines and other locations are all aimed at China. A cursory glance at the timeline shows that China’s military build-up is a response to enormously increased military pressure on them through USA’s ‘Pivot to Asia’. The US characterises China’s rapidly growing military capability as a ‘threat to peace in the Indo-Pacific’, whereas, in reality, “China’s defence budget is one third of the US”.

As in 1972, the Labor Party is poised to make positive and beneficial changes for Australia. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong visited China to help ease a difficult diplomatic situation caused by her predecessors. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met with President Xi at the G20 in Bali and moves are afoot for him to visit China soon. Moves are definitely positive but Lander feels the task ahead for Penny Wong, remains “Herculean”.

It’s clear from the military build-up that America does not want friendly and mutually beneficial relations with China. Following the US “Pivot to Asia” announced during the Obama era, a 2,500 US Marine “spearhead” is now stationed in Darwin. Then came AUKUS, an agreement for Australia to buy and operate nuclear attack submarines, and recently, an agreement to base B52 long-range, nuclear capable bombers in Australia. Lander’s view differs to most of his peers, who feel that Australia could be “dragged into a war”. He feels it’s more likely Australia will be pushed into a “proxy war”.

But military build-up is not the only issue. Millions of US dollars are poured into think tanks, including some inside Australia, such as ASPI, which claims independence but receives significant funding from US State and Defence Departments to stoke fear of China. Lander feels ASPI has “become a front for US influence in Australia”.

An unrelenting “world-wide media campaign, which has been going on for several years to portray China as the aggressor”, drums up support in Australia by accusing China of aggression when the US makes provocative moves.

US views are not the only obstacle. Former Defence Minister and now opposition leader Peter Dutton, is highly pre-disposed towards strained relations; making it clear, when he was the responsible minister, that Australia needed to prepare for war against China.

Inside Albanese’s own Labor Party, the current defence minister, Richard Marles, “mouths the same message that Australia has to prepare itself militarily”. This was confirmed when he met his Chinese opposite number in June.

The combined efforts of a global media campaign, think tank fearmongering, and American action as well as funding, have created a populism which impacts on Australia’s democracy. Public opinion shifts, through anti-China rhetoric, make it impossible for any Australian politician or academic to speak positively on China without risk of losing votes or even their jobs.

It is clear that “Herculean” understates the task ahead. The odds are heavily stacked up against Albanese and Wong who will need both political courage and diplomatic skill to bring it off. But for Australia’s sake, bring it off they must.

See the interview below:

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