Living with China: There is a way, but is there a will? Part 3

Jun 24, 2020

To enter into a sustained and productive dialogue with China, Australia needs to do its homework. As indicated In Parts 1 and 2, both government and society have to cultivate a better understanding of contemporary China, its history, culture, economy and politics.

We must also make a start on disentangling ourselves from the military ties that bind us so closely and dangerously to US strategic planning. But there is a third equally important task, which is to develop a clear sense of how we are to respond to the daunting challenges we face regionally and globally.

A more effective and inclusive security regime in Asia-Pacific in which China is assured of its rightful place on the table is a necessary prerequisite for regional stability. Though sketched only with broad brush strokes, the June 2019 ASEAN declaration ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific is a step in this direction. But it is not enough. While supportive of the ASEAN statement, Australia should be pressing hard for a commitment by all regional players, and in particular by China and the United States, to a marked reduction in maritime power projection in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The United States, China, Russia and to a lesser extent India and Japan are presently engaged in a troubling arms race involving a range of advanced weapons technologies, including ballistic missile defence, conventional prompt strike missiles, and anti-satellite and cyber capabilities. Reversing this trend should be one of Australia’s highest priorities, one that features prominently in the Australia-China dialogue. To this end, Australia, in consultation either with ASEAN as a whole or some of its members as well as other like-minded states in the Indo-Pacific region, should propose a series of arms control and confidence building measures as part of a phased demilitarisation program.

Nor can arms control and disarmament be limited to conventional weapons. The Asian nuclear order is anything but orderly. While much attention has centred on the Korean peninsula, the United States, Russia, China, India and Pakistan have all been busy modernising and in some cases expanding their nuclear arsenals. They are intent on developing more sophisticated warhead technologies, longer missile ranges and larger and more capable sea based nuclear forces.

The Asian nuclear disarmament agenda is pressing. Australia should make it clear it expects China and other nuclear armed states to support, and preferably initiate, concrete nuclear disarmament proposals. For its part, Australia should join the nine out of ten ASEAN states that have signed the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, and encourage other regional non-nuclear weapon states to do likewise, as a prelude to exerting collective pressure on all Asian nuclear weapon states to follow suit. Such a step would also strengthen Australia’s hand as it seeks to make demilitarisation and nuclear disarmament key elements of its dialogue with China. At every opportunity, Australia should explain how a proactive engagement in this area would enhance China’s own security and leadership credentials.

As for the South China Sea disputes, Australia should actively support the proposed Code of Conduct which China and the ASEAN countries have been negotiating for close to twenty years. But final agreement on the Code, expected in 2022, is unlikely to cover the thorny question of territorial disputes and maritime delimitation issues, and should therefore be seen as a stepping stone to a new set of negotiations on dispute settlement mechanisms.

A durable solution to tensions in the South China Sea is unlikely in the absence of an integrated approach to Indo-Pacific security. Only such an approach holds the prospect of a phased program of demilitarisation. All the more important, then, for regional players to avoid actions that contribute to the militarisation of the South China Sea. For Australia this means actively advocating the wisdom of this path, and itself refraining from committing ships and planes in support of US ‘freedom of navigation’ operations.

Security questions aside, differences over human rights are placing the greatest strain on the Australia-China relationship. China’s handling of human rights, both at home and internationally, is hardly beyond reproach. There is, however, little to be gained from using human rights as a stick to beat China with, and even less from projecting Australia as a great human rights champion. Let’s not forget, our own record on Indigenous rights, treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, civil liberties, and support for the human rights of oppressed minorities, not least in our own neighbourhood, is far from exemplary.

This does not mean lowering our sights when it comes to human rights In China. But in aiming high, we need to approach the task with a healthy dose of humility – we ourselves need to perform better.

How to do this? First, by engaging in an ongoing conversation with China about fundamentals, about the key principles that should govern an effective international human rights regime. We can do this in multiple bilateral forums, in government-to-government dialogues, societal exchanges, and importantly through the educational and Intellectual institutions of the two countries.

Highly instructive in this regard are the partnerships the Danish Institute for Human Rights has established with Chinese institutions, including the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, university law schools, legal firms, and civil society organisations. The value of doing this is twofold: it avoids settings conducive to unhelpful confrontation, and it invites Chinese interlocutors to reflect more deeply on their own positions.

The Chinese government has in practice conceded that human rights are not universally respected. One of the functions of the UN Human Rights Council is to identify countries where performance is unacceptably low. China has held a seat on the UN Human Rights Council for four three-year terms since its establishment in 2006, and has just been appointed to the Council’s Consultative Group. Though traditionally protective of national sovereignty and reluctant to endorse international intervention, it has in recent years supported the important principle of the international community’s ‘responsibility to protect’.

Simply put, China has recognised the principle that national human rights policies and practices are universally subject to international review. This being so, Australia is entitled to ask whether China accepts the proposition that its own performance must also be open to international monitoring? To give the question added force, Australia should make it clear that, for its part, it welcomes international scrutiny of its own human rights regime, and that henceforth it stands ready to refer any international criticisms and recommendations to relevant government bodies and to parliamentary and public debate before making a considered response.

At the same time, we should take care not to single out China for special treatment. We must be prepared to denounce human rights violations wherever they occur, and as part of that draw attention to the serious failings of America’s human rights record both at home and abroad.

One other commitment, important in its own right, would greatly strengthen Australian human rights advocacy with regard to China. For too long Western liberal democracies have privileged civil and political rights over social, economic and cultural rights. It is time for Australia to try and redress the balance and place human rights at the centre of its social and economic agenda at home and its international trade and diplomacy abroad.

As Australia moves to put its own house in order, it will be well placed to propose concrete action designed to stem the accelerating trend towards authoritarianism in many parts of the world, not least in China.

In any Australia-China dialogue, the Australian interlocutors need not be shy of acknowledging that political stability is a worthy objective for any society. But we can legitimately pose the question: will recourse to the iron fist, whether in the securitisation of life in Hong Kong, the re-education camps in Xinjiang, or use of the death penalty, have the desired effect? Some may wish to object to the use of the iron fist because it is contrary to Western liberal values. But these are not the only ethical grounds for objection.

Strong arm tactics designed to bring dissenting views into line are at odds with the principle of harmony which lies at the heart of Confucian thought, and is now a highly visible strand in contemporary Chinese discourse. Indeed, ‘harmony but not uniformity’ has become an important element of Xi Jinping thought. The harmony principle requires that we discard practices likely to foment resentment, grievance, hatred and even violence. China in line with its own best instincts can find ways of maintaining stability without doing violence to the dignity of the human person.

Enough has been said to indicate how complex and painstaking will be Australia’s role in developing a durable dialogue with China. As intimated more than once, its task will nevertheless be made much easier to the extent it can act in concert with interested Asian and South Pacific neighbours and other like-minded governments.

Collectively, they can make more effective use of the range of diplomatic and cultural levers at their disposal to convey a simple but powerful message to China. They welcome and accept the power and civilisational shift that is now under way both regionally and globally. But such momentous shift inevitably brings with it much turbulence which, if mismanaged, could inflict devastation on an already deeply fractured world.

Conversely a China that is at peace with itself can play a leadership role in initiating and sustaining an inter-civilisational dialogue to accompany its inter-continental Belt and Road Initiative. To this dialogue it can offer the vision of a harmonious but plural world. It can also propose ways of institutionalising a world order that draws in part on the Confucian virtues of wisdom, courtesy, honesty, benevolence and righteousness.

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