Living with China: There is a way, but is there a will? Part 2

Jun 23, 2020

In Part 1 we saw that the post-1945 Western dominated world order is rapidly giving way to a multicentric world, in which different players, each with its own system of governance and civilisational inheritance, are vying for power and influence. In this part, we examine How Australia can accommodate this shift, as it goes about the demanding task of rethinking its relationship with China.

How precisely the Sino-Australian rift can be mended, and how long it will take only time will tell. But we can as of now set out the main elements of an approach that is feasible and well overdue.

To state the obvious, such an approach must have China at its centre. Australians must come to understand that China is a civilisational state, not a national state. They must become familiar with the values, institutions, language, past achievements in science and culture, and contemporary aspirations of one of the world’s great civilisations, with close to 4,000 years of uninterrupted written history.

To achieve the desired level of cultural literacy, governments (federal, state and municipal) will need to set in train a well coordinated, long-term and generously resourced national program covering research, the arts, media and communications, multicultural affairs, and education, not least the teaching of Chinese language and culture. To succeed this effort must have the active engagement of the nation’s educational, professional and cultural institutions, and importantly Australia’s large Chinese community, not forgetting the many Chinese students that have studied in Australia’s higher education sector (approximately, 1,100,000 over the last ten years).

The learning process will not be an easy one, intellectually or emotionally. The West’s expectation, especially in the English speaking world, that the end of the Cold War would usher in the widespread embrace of liberal democratic practices has proved illusory. China is but the most dramatic instance of what is a global trend.

China has set its own path. The Chinese Communist Party – with an estimated current membership in excess of 90 million – is intent on pursuing its development model of authoritarian state capitalism and managed markets, a model which by all accounts can rely on substantial public support so long as it delivers ‘moderate economic prosperity’ and continues on the path to poverty eradication. The question is: given their different values and institutions can the two countries develop a comprehensive dialogue that is both respectful and mutually beneficial?

The answer is a conditional yes. It will need an Australia that is less encumbered by the heavy demands of military alignment and more culturally adept at connecting with China. An Australia that has found its own voice and acquired the necessary listening skills stands a reasonable chance of initiating such a dialogue, though success will require much patience and stamina.

The dialogue will of necessity have to deal with key issues in the bilateral relationship. The two-way trade in goods and services, foreign investment rules, other forms of economic cooperation, more effective ways of negotiating the differences between the legal and regulatory frameworks of the two countries are obvious candidates Two other areas are critical to the success of the dialogue objective, namely educational exchanges, joint research programs, and people-to-people links covering the main professions, the arts, sport, multicultural affairs, women, youth and religion in society – all of this to engage a much large segment of society and at a much higher level of intensity than is presently the case.

In this and other aspects of the dialogue, the specific issues to be considered will no doubt require a lot of thought. So will the method, format, timing and resourcing of the dialogue. They too must be the subject of detailed consultation, agreement and periodic review. Governments at all levels will play a key role in the preparation and conduct of the dialogue, but so should other stakeholders. On the Chinese side, societal stakeholders may not have the freedom of their Australian counterparts when it comes to politically contentious questions, but they can still bring to the table unique knowledge, skills and insights which pertain to their respective areas of experience and expertise.

One thing is clear. Dialogue does not grow on trees. It is at the best of times a complex and painstaking exercise. Given its sensitivity and importance, an Australia-China dialogue worthy of the name requires immense preparation, much skilling, and adequate resourcing.

Customised training, including preparation of resource materials, in the philosophy and methodology of dialogue as well as in cultural competence will be needed for the vast majority of dialogue participants. Diplomats, government officials, business executives and professional and community leaders should not regard such training as beneath their dignity. An Australia-China dialogue of the scale and depth envisaged here will require a significant investment of time, effort and a substantial annual investment by both the public and private sectors.

We now come to the difficult and contentious issues the dialogue must confront. Australia’s call for an international inquiry into the origins of the pandemic and Beijing’s retaliatory measures have no doubt heightened tensions between the two countries. However, these are best understood as irritants rather than the true sources of mutual mistrust and suspicion. To put it crudely but not inaccurately, each views the other as disrupting its comfort zone.

Many Australians are disconcerted by China’s economic rise and the flexing of geopolitical muscle that accompanies it. China’s self-assertion is evident in its claims to vast stretches of the South China Sea, and its willingness to back those claims with extensive island-building and naval patrols. The Australian fear is that the forward projection of Chinese military power foreshadows the loss of America’s undisputed military supremacy in the western Pacific

Other sources of disquiet include Beijing’s threatened use of force should Taiwan move towards a declaration of independence, its increasing economic and diplomatic clout in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, and the expanding array of infrastructure and high tech projects that are likely to lock many countries on China’s periphery into its growing sphere of influence. For Australia all this signals the possibility of a diminished US strategic presence in the region, which must be avoided at all costs since it continues to view that presence as the bedrock of its own security.

China on the other hand sees Australia as prodding and supporting enhanced US military capabilities in the very region it considers as either part of its sovereign territory or the backyard where its presence is entitled to enjoy primacy.

Where does this leave the Australia-China dialogue? Movement is clearly needed on both sides. An Australia that is beginning to take its distance from US military operations and strategic priorities would no longer evoke the same negative Chinese perceptions. Indeed, China would be only too keen to encourage this chink in America’s containment strategy. In other words, it would have every incentive to lend a receptive ear to Australian arguments and proposals.

To take full advantage of this critical juncture Australia would need to be fully prepared, intellectually, psychologically and organisationally. It would need to bring to the table a coherent and persuasive vision of the future accompanied by a well articulated set of proposals that would have been the subject of prior and intensive consultation with a number of friends and neighbours.

The starting premise would be relatively simple. Australia welcomes China’s rise and accepts that it is entitled to have a significant say in shaping the future strategic and geopolitical landscape of the Asia-Pacific region. A significant say, it should be stressed, does not mean predominance or hegemony.

So the question for China is this: is it prepared to engage in a substantive consultative and coordinating framework – building on existing arrangements but going well beyond them – that can deliver regional stability and security? This would be a framework whose primary function is to oversee the exploration and development of maritime resources, protection of the ecological environment, and safeguarding of trade routes in ways that are mutually beneficial for all relevant parties. A more independent Australia, acting in concert with others, would be well placed to press China, as well as other regional players, for an answer to this question.

This is but one of the vexing issues that impinge on the Australia-China relationship. As we shall see in Part 3, several other regional and global challenges require Australia’s and China’s urgent attention, and must therefore be integral to any meaningful dialogue between the two countries.

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