China is an authoritarian state, and an increasingly assertive one. But there are ways of expressing our concern that are not counterproductive to our national interests.
Anti-China sentiment is careering out of control in Australia, and it’s time to press the pause button. Fast. China is an authoritarian state, and an increasingly assertive one, and there are many grounds for concern about its recent behaviour, both externally and internally. But there are ways of expressing that concern that are not counterproductive to our national interests, or to those whom we want to help. Too many on both sides of national politics, in the national security community, and in the media seem to have forgotten or never learned them.
Signs of ever-more strident Sinophobia are everywhere. In a daily drumbeat of hostile mainstream media articles, with the Nine/Fairfax press now indistinguishable from Murdoch’s. In the Government’s ill-thought rush to single out China for international blame over COVID-19. In Foreign Minister Payne’s ever more unbalanced statements, and the Opposition’s unwillingness to call them out. In the Government’s and Opposition’s excessive deference to the recommendations of a national security and intelligence community now itself more collectively deferential to Washington (notwithstanding its catastrophically dysfunctional current leadership), and to the views of the ‘Five Eyes’ group it leads, than I can ever remember
And more. In the Government’s decision to cut off funding for the China Matters think-tank, until now no-one’s idea of a pro-Beijing patsy. In the over-reaction to the Victorian Government’s (no doubt a little naively optimistic) efforts to win international infrastructure contracts by supporting China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In members and senators from both sides signing up to the new, unremittingly hostile Western lobby group, the Inter-ParIiamentary Alliance on China. In the Government’s indifference or worse to the plight of legions of Chinese students either stuck here in economic distress or anxious about their academic future, and to the Universities who are trying to support and reassure them. And in the way all this has contributed to overt expressions of community racial hostility towards Chinese citizens, residents and visitors most of us had thought a thing of the past.
All this has fed, inevitably, into an escalatory cycle in which Australia has been on the receiving end of a succession of further pinpricks: most recently assaults on beef and barley exports, threats and warnings on tourists and students, and – hardly coincidental in its timing – a death penalty judgment against an Australian citizen. While some of the wolf-warrior foreign ministry railings and hyper-nationalist Global Times thunderings can safely be discounted for now – and it is extremely unlikely that China will seriously inhibit resources trade with us in the coal, gas, and above all iron ore, crucial for its own economy – there is no doubt that it has the capacity, particularly if outright bans were placed post-COVID on tourist and student travel here, to damage us very seriously indeed.
So how should Australia be balancing our concerns with our interests? I certainly do not argue in any way for complete capitulation. There are many entirely legitimate grounds for us and others questioning, challenging and contesting China’s recent behaviour. Its militarization of contested reefs and islets in the South China Sea has been in shameless defiance of international law and in breach of its own undertakings, and Australia has been right to publicly call this out. So too have we been right to challenge Beijing’s security law provocations in Hong Kong as utterly offensive to the spirit and letter of the 1997 handover agreement. And to be strongly critical of its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and of its Tibetan people and their culture. And to regularly express concern about harshness of its criminal justice system – not just when our own citizens are caught up in it – as counter not just to our own but universal human rights values. And to take strong measures to protect our national institutions from being undermined through improper influence, and our major infrastructure from unacceptable security risk, including from companies manifestly beholden to Chinese government direction.
All that acknowledged, the crucial issue is how we push back, how we make our points in defence of our national security and economic interests and good international citizenship values. China is hugely important to our future, not going away, and we are going to have find ways of living with it.
The first most immediate need, in escaping from the escalatory cycle in which we are currently trapped, is to keep our criticisms calm and measured, and within rational bounds. In international diplomacy, words are bullets, and they always have to be chosen carefully, particularly in public discourse. Malcolm Turnbull found this, to Australia’s cost, with his too-clever-by-half invocation, in Mandarin, of the Maoist injunction for the people to ‘stand up’ against foreign interference, which has still not been forgotten in Beijing. Loss of face causes many more intractable political problems, and stands much more in the way of their solution, than loss of dollars. Every ministerial speech and every official statement (or, sometimes, a non-response to an inflammatory media or other comment) should be made with that reality in mind.
None of this means ignoring sensitive subjects, or holding back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values. My mantra as foreign minister, when it came to making representations on these issues, had three dimensions. Obviously do anything likely to be productive – for ethnic minorities under siege, detained dissidents, prisoners on death row or the like; less obviously but not unimportantly, do not shirk from doing that which is manifestly unproductive, but at least valuable in making the point in question, and encouraging others internationally to build like pressure; but avoid at all costs doing that which is counterproductive, making things worse for those one is trying to help, which is very often the case when the public megaphone rather than private voice is employed.
The second need, in navigating present tensions, is to see China’s present international assertiveness in its historical context, and read its intentions and respond to its provocations accordingly. Much of China’s behaviour is no more than what can and should be expected of a dramatically economically rising, hugely trade-dependent regional superpower wanting to flap its wings and reassert its historical greatness after more than a century of wounded pride – certainly wanting to buy strategic space for itself, certainly wanting the military capacity to protect its economic lifelines, and certainly wanting an influence in global policy-making consonant with its new strength.
While Beijing would unquestionably like to play the role of regional hegemon, and will push every available envelope of influence as far as it can within our region and beyond, it seems inconceivable that (with the possible exception of Taiwan) it could ever judge that the benefits of outright military aggression outweighed the costs. Of course every country, including Australia, has to premise its defence policy on potential adversaries’ capability, not present intent. And as our confidence in US alliance protection declines, so must our self-reliance increase. But the notion that China is hell-bent on military conquest, which does seem to underlie at least some of the current semi-hysteria, is for the indefinitely foreseeable future wholly misconceived.
The third requirement, when a relationship is under the kind of strain ours has been with China, is for our diplomacy to focus hard on potential shared interests, issues that can unite rather than further divide. I have long argued that one of the most productive ways of building new content – not just economic – into our presently very one-dimensional relationship is for Australia to play both on what’s left of our reputation as a good international citizen, committed to finding effective multilateral solutions to global and regional public goods issues, and China’s desire to project soft power.
Beijing’s efforts to improve its image have often been clumsy, and occasionally counterproductive, but in areas like international cooperation on climate, peacekeeping, counter-terrorism, arms control and – dare I say it – for the most part in response to pandemics (notably Ebola), it has in recent times been playing a more interested and constructive role than has generally been recognised. Some will of course say that Xi Jinping’s rapid occupation of the climate space abdicated by the US, and his rush, similarly, to champion the virtues of free trade, has been just cynical opportunism. But I don’t think we should necessarily assume that: we should be out there exploring the options. Anything would be preferable to the ever-deeper hole we presently seem determined to dig for ourselves.