Politics

International politics

Balancing on a tower of chairs
On Australia’s relations with China

The sourness in Australia’s current relationship with China is as much Australia’s fault as China’s, with ideology and domestic politics overpowering the national interest. It is true that China has in recent times been behaving towards Australia like a schoolyard bully picking on a small fry, but we have been actively provoking the bully. Whose interests are being served by our continuing to do so? Or are we just not thinking clearly because we are so used to being told what to do? 

I have been involved in Australia–China cultural engagement for more than 40 years, mostly in the arts, but also in many other roles. As cultural counsellor at the Australian embassy in Beijing during the Hawke years, I was responsible for culture in the artistic sense; the activities of the Australia-China Council; for science, technology and medicine; for conservation and the environment; for sport, law, accounting and agriculture; and for the Australian students in China – indeed for anything that came to the Embassy that was not politics, trade, aid or defence.

It was a golden time in the relationship, with China opening to the world and both sides keen to deepen the relationship and learn from each other. In Chinese government agencies, artistic circles and academia, everyone was welcoming and supportive. In China, culture is very close to ideology and the winds of political change were first felt on the artists’ cheeks. As in every Asian country I know, culture is at the very centre of Chinese life through a broad understanding of one’s language, history, education, art, food and even politics, whereas in Australia many people still seem to think culture is what you do on a Saturday night. 

China’s tight political censorship across the arts is paradoxically a testament to the power of art, and a show of respect for the influence that art can have across society. Unlike China, the arts in Australia are not generally thought to be a measure of society, nor a powerful force for social cohesion and economic betterment. The hopes that Australian artists express about art influencing society were, I found, experienced for real in China. 

After three years in China, I returned to the Playbox Theatre in Melbourne, and then to other roles with a continuing involvement in, and support for, cultural exchange that kept me linked to the ongoing challenges of our relationship with China. To quote Macbeth: “I am in blood / Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” 

Recently I’ve concluded that the tragedy of Australia’s relations with China is our failure to recognise our wilful infliction of self-harm. 


Earlier Australian prime ministers accepted, and sometimes touted, Australia’s support for American military containment of China in the Pacific. We never said this openly, but we did allow President Obama to announce the so-called US Pacific “pivot” in our own parliament. This pivot was, of course, a policy to contain China. Successive prime ministers from both major political parties have failed to give us an assessment of what it might mean for Australia to pick sides in a great power rivalry across the Pacific.

I would argue that this is not our contest, and America’s national interest is not the same as Australia’s national interest. Yes, we want a very good relationship with the United States, but we should not have to give this up to have a courteous and workmanlike relationship with China. Our current prime minister, who fell into the job with no knowledge or experience of China whatsoever, has accepted without question the Trumpish view of China as the enemy. 

Every day we are bombarded with negative views of China by members of the government and the mainstream media. Almost every story is distorted with the pejorative label of “communist”, as though this word alone justifies our hostility. Yet most Australians of European heritage, and sadly most of the Australian political class, know almost nothing of China’s history, its rich culture and traditions, let alone its language and form of government. In my lifetime, I don’t think we have ever had a prime minister, a foreign minister or a cabinet with less knowledge of China and less apparent interest in improving this dismal situation. We don’t have to like its form of government to deal with China in a more informed, balanced and respectful way. 

Our politicians and media want to change China rather than to understand it. The overwhelming majority of Australians know nothing of the suffering and trials of the Chinese people in the 19th and 20th centuries – mostly inflicted by our British and European ancestors. They know little and care even less about the rise of modern China and its legitimate interests, about the achievements of the Chinese people over the last few decades, during which hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty and been enabled to live a modest but decent life; where many now own their own apartment, maybe also a car, or can take a holiday; where they can, in fact, enjoy a small part of the many privileges that Australians take for granted.

In 40 years of travelling regularly to China I have only ever met courtesy, curiosity and generosity – and tried to reciprocate it. I can tell you very truthfully that in general the Chinese people are much happier, more optimistic about the future, more capitalist, more proud of their own country and far more respectful of the power of a good education than most Australians. 

People find it threatening that many Chinese are richer than us, more successful than us, and often smarter than us. Now they even presume to question the truth of our Western so-called “universal values”? Are these the same values exhibited by those who proclaimed the South Australia Act 1834, which promised to protect the land rights of the Indigenous people here? Or the values that keep children and families imprisoned indefinitely in detention centres on distant islands? It is time we stopped feeling so righteous. Every society has strengths and weaknesses. We need to be a lot more clear-eyed about both, and spend more time focused on addressing our own issues. 

Late last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was reported as saying words to the effect of: the relationship with China is hard and it is going to get harder. Why have I never heard him say, “How are we going to try to make it better?” Sadly, I have not seen much evidence that he and his advisers want the relationship to be better. It’s scary, but maybe he does not know how to make it better. Even scarier, perhaps, he may be waiting for instructions before he tries to make it better.

Frankly, China has largely ceased to care about Australia. Politically we have made ourselves irrelevant. The relationship won’t get better with bluster and slogans, our PM talking sternly of “sovereignty”, which is not at issue, or of our “values”, which are not threatened – the Chinese are not asking us to change our form of government, follow Confucius or unpick our legal system. The prime minister says that every decision he takes on China is in the national interest. I find it difficult to understand how decisions to alienate our biggest trading partner, damage export earnings and destroy jobs in many industries can possibly be in Australia’s national interest. 

Why is it, do you think, that the many different countries of the Asian region are able to deal with China so much better than we do, even the ones that have favoured an alliance with America or have a troubled history with China? Japan has huge historical baggage in its dealing with China, yet the Japanese seem to manage the relationship so much better. Courtesy, discipline, respect and an intimate knowledge of the other are a good starting point. These are not values you associate with Australia’s management of the China relationship. Another part is a more independent foreign policy: Japan favours America, but the Japanese know that their national interest is not identical to American national interest.

One of our nearest neighbours – Indonesia, with whom Australia should be much more closely allied – manages to walk the line between China and the United States with so much more finesse than we can. So does Singapore and, for that matter, so does New Zealand. None of these countries spend as much political capital needlessly poking China in the eye as we have done, and none have had their trade with China threatened at this time. They treat China with public and formal diplomatic courtesy, as one should treat one’s neighbours, particularly the very big and powerful ones with whom you want strong commercial ties.

Morrison chose to attach himself at the hip to a US president who not only did not drain the swamp, he was the swamp; a president who went out of his way to destroy the international organisations and norms we constantly say we want others to follow; a president who belittled the alliances on which our security was said to depend. I don’t know what flattery spiked the prime minister’s drink at the state dinner for him that Trump hosted at the White House in September 2019, but Morrison was clearly seduced.

The PM is acting in the great Australian tradition of subservience – some would call it loyalty – first to the British motherland, and then after World War Two, to our new big brother, the United States. Loyalty took us into World War One. Subservience has taken us into three extended and disastrous American-led conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. 

None of these wars has made Australia safer, but now the Americans are again leading us towards confrontation, this time with China. Peter Dutton and his right-hand man tell us the drums of war are beating, but is this what we really want? Is this really in our national interest? Isn’t it time to develop a more independent foreign policy that retains the US as a friend but that also develops a more balanced, diplomatic and nuanced relationship with China? Contrary to the doomsayers and pundits, we do not have to sell our soul to achieve this. Japan hasn’t. New Zealand hasn’t. Indonesia hasn’t. Singapore hasn’t. 

China has been on a trajectory back towards historical greatness since Deng XiaoPing started the economic reforms in the Sichuan province countryside in the late 1970s, but the sheer incompetence and corruption of the Trump administration helped Make China Great Again and contributed enormously to speeding the shift in the world’s centre of gravity from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific.

It’s important to ask ourselves what China wants. First, it wants to be the undisputed leading power in the Asia-Pacific (or “the Indo-Pacific” as some have now taken to calling it, as though this very name somehow reduces China’s influence). Second, China wants to be respected as a superpower equal to the United States in its broad influence in world affairs. I would argue that, in view of its giant landmass and population, its economic strength, developed infrastructure and growing military capacity, the first goal is not objectively unreasonable, but it does require the United States to accept China’s rise rather than attempting to contain it. The US should be able to understand the logic and desirability of being the dominant player in your own backyard, just as it is in Latin America and the Caribbean. The second broader objective will take a bit longer, but in principle a balance of power is not a bad thing.

Unfortunately, our prime minister has chosen to take his advice on China from a very narrow group of people in the defence and intelligence world, all trained by, and taking their cues from, the US defence and intelligence establishment. 

What we seem not to understand is China’s demand for “respect” is a necessary basis for reciprocal and productive cooperation. This means accepting the People’s Republic of China for what it is, a state in the international system as legitimate as any other, with its own system of government and its own power structures. This is the state with which Australia established diplomatic relations in 1972, with which we developed the closest and most productive bilateral relationship over 40 years. China has been a communist state throughout this time, but this was not an ideological impediment to mutual respect and mutually beneficial cooperation. Today, as the Chinese have made abundantly clear, the lack of respect is the core “political” problem at the heart of the relationship. 

“Respect” is not part of the vocabulary of those now running the China relationship, the defence and intelligence folk who are paid to see threats and look into the future to divine the shape of wars to come. Defence people tend to be lousy analysts. Look at recent history: the staggering cost blowouts and the disastrous problems with our proposed submarine fleet and the Joint Strike Fighter program. And it is simply wrong to say that China threatens Australian sovereignty. Unlike the US, China doesn’t want to station its troops here, nor is it about to invade, but it is unquestionably on its way to the status of a superpower as it was 200 years ago. 

Of course, the analysis of strategic threats is a very important element in any assessment of our national security and the government must hear this voice, but it can become self-fulfilling when it is the only voice. Why isn’t our government listening to the views on the China relationship held by Australian leaders in business, science and technology, education, diplomacy, arts and culture, minerals and energy, and law, or indeed the large number of those involved in commercial, cultural and people-to-people engagement with China? Only five years ago such people were considered important contributors to Australia’s wide-ranging and successful relationship with China.

Yes, China has become more aggressive in its stance, but we have gone out of our way to antagonise them and done almost nothing to understand their view of the world. Instead of seeking to undermine our universities, why isn’t our government actively promoting scholarship about China and investing in language training so that the next generation might be able to handle these things better? 

Currently, if anyone dares to say anything positive about China, Australian government ministers slap them down, no matter how senior or expert they may be. Ironically, this prompts memories of China’s Cultural Revolution when it was unsafe to have views outside the government-approved orthodoxy. 

Meanwhile Australians of Chinese heritage, some of whose families have been here for six or more generations, are experiencing increasing racism and even physical threats. They are reluctant to participate in Australian civil society lest they be tarred with claims of disloyalty. I know Australian Chinese who are now reluctant to make donations to worthy charitable causes, even to the arts, lest they be accused by the media of trying to buy influence in Australian society.

The Australian political class has been persuaded to adopt increasingly hostile positions to China in every field. And I am not just talking about the conservatives – the Labor Party fears being wedged and, with the occasional exception of Senator Penny Wong, is shamefully reluctant to express more balanced views lest the ALP be branded as soft on national security. Senator Wong recently made the point that everything said about China by the prime minister is done with an eye to his domestic political advantage. I think that’s correct, but only part of the story. While the view of China has been so poisoned that focus groups may be telling him there are votes in repeating the mantra about standing up to bullies, I speculate that what is actually happening is a proxy fight for the leadership between Morrison and challenger Peter Dutton. Dutton’s allies are hustling the votes right now. Every time Dutton appeals to the far right by attacking China, Morrison feels he has to say something even stronger to keep the right wing on his team. He has the very slimmest of majorities in both the party and the parliament. He loses both if Dutton siphons off any support.

In the government’s own language about Australia’s free trade agreement with China, which only came into force in December 2015, it was described as “an historic Agreement that is delivering enormous benefits to Australia, enhancing our competitive position in the Chinese market, boosting economic growth and creating jobs”. Now just a few years later, we see many instances of Australia’s economic interest being swamped by Canberra’s political posturing. One example: late last year, China’s Mengniu Dairy was blocked when it tried to purchase an Australia-based dairy business owned by Lion, a Japanese company. A publicly listed Chinese company wanted to buy some Australian dairy assets from a publicly listed Japanese company in a $600 million deal that was approved by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg blocked the deal on national security grounds, or so he said. Who knew that a Chinese company buying Japanese-owned dairy cows represented a national security threat? In fact, I think it had much more to do with the Canberra leadership waltz, with Frydenberg pushing back against Dutton’s leadership aspirations by showing off his own hairy-chested right-wing credentials, even if this was in breach of the free trade agreement. 

When Chinese companies are weakened by Western government actions, the Chinese government tends to step in to support them, which gives the government an even stronger position in the economy and weakens the private sector, which has been the largest engine of Chinese growth in recent decades. President Xi Jinping will be smiling because one of his goals is to wrest back increased state control over all non-government players in the economic, social and cultural spheres. 

Our government constantly tells us that foreign interference is a huge threat, but it is obvious that we are not against foreign interference, just against China. We don’t hassle the Japan Foundation or the Goethe Institute for teaching Japanese or German and promoting the cultures of their countries. And despite the passage through parliament in September 2019 of the Foreign Interference Bill, which was pressed on the government by our national security agencies, we have American military bases with American troops on our land and long-range bomber training based near Darwin. Isn’t this foreign interference? And also something that is much more likely to drag us into a future war than keep us out of one? 

I hesitate to say it, but foreign interference is actually written into our Constitution. Our head of state is a foreigner and, as has been shown in recent times, Her Majesty is not averse to interfering in the dismissal of an elected Australian prime minister. 

Australia is in a very serious pickle, strategically and economically. The downhill slide has only taken five years but is now costing us many billions in lost export earnings and many Australian jobs. For the moment this real financial loss has been hidden by the very high price paid by China for Australia’s iron ore, while the wider social costs have been masked by the pandemic. When massive Chinese investment in alternative sources of iron ore come online in a few years, the bleeding obvious will become even more bloody – unless we take action now. And, as Robert Gottliebsen pointed out in a recent article, we would be wise to remember that China controls a high percentage of all merchant shipping that comes to this country. Turn off this tap and Australian exports and imports will be severely compromised. Such actions might hurt China too, but don’t count on it not being willing to pay the price.

We have a government that has put us into this pickle, a government that doesn’t know how to get us out, indeed a government that can’t muster the independent will to work it out. In the unlikely event that the Biden administration can normalise and improve US relations with China, perhaps we might follow, but why must we wait for permission to act in our own national interest? 

It wasn’t always thus. 

I was very lucky. My chance to work in China fell in a period when Australia was beginning to see the opportunities that a modernising China represented for trade, when there was huge optimism that China’s Open Door Policy would not only offer commercial benefits through trade liberalisation but also lead China to move gradually towards a more relaxed and accountable, if not democratic, system of government. China runs its own race, and we forgot that China has been ruled by imperial dynasties for thousands of years. Despite the new communist branding, China was not about to change its fundamental form of government just because we and others in the West thought this was desirable. As a good friend said in another context: “You can’t make a tree grow by shouting at it.” 

My wife grew up during the Cultural Revolution and, coming from an artistic and intellectual background, her family suffered a great deal. Almost 10 years of national chaos, personal tragedy, political isolation and economic disaster, but it’s not just the Cultural Revolution, because much of the 19th and 20th centuries was marked by frequent chaos and war, often coming from abroad. No wonder stability and order are such a deeply held desire of the ordinary people in China, and not just imposed from above. President Xi may be disliked or feared by the Chinese elites, but he is immensely popular among the ordinary people because he represents stability and prosperity. The Chinese think more of the collective good than we do. They are immensely proud of China’s rise in world affairs and feel a shared patriotism. Why shouldn’t they?

I have been critical of our government here, and I know that I will be criticised for this. I have said that there is much to be critical of in Chinese policy and behaviour but I have not set out to detail this because so many others are banging this drum. I said that the prime minister should be asking how we can make the relationship better, pointing to the need for a more independent foreign policy, respectful of but separate from that of the United States. I would now like to make a few modest suggestions about steps we might consider to help us out of the dark and threatening forest, and back onto the trail towards the daylight of improved relations. 

In my role as cultural counsellor, I had negotiated the loan of two giant pandas as China’s birthday present to mark the celebration of Australia’s bicentenary in 1988. For two years I met monthly with my counterparts from the Ministry of Forestry and Fisheries who had responsibility on the Chinese side. I used to call these “three teapot meetings”; career diplomats might call them “full and frank discussions”. We covered an immense amount of detail in matters such as transport, security, insurance, feeding, facilities at the Australian zoos, quarantine and veterinary requirements, living arrangements for their keepers and, of course, fees: the Chinese side wanted a very big sum.

The Chinese are masterful negotiators, but I learned quickly, resisting what I regarded as over-the-top “rent a panda” terms and regularly retreating to another cup of tea, and talk of “friendship between our two great peoples”. We started each meeting with areas where we could find agreement, and then, when we came to a stumbling block and could not find common ground about a particular clause, we would put that issue aside, have yet another cup of tea and resolve to meet again next month.

And so it went, month by month, until the Melbourne and Sydney zoos – which had invested more than a million dollars each to build new enclosures, had grown the appropriate bamboos and imported huge amounts of panda merchandise for their shops – became panicked, and both the ambassador and I received constant Australian government instructions to sign the deal. I refused to accept what I thought were unreasonable terms. I tried to reassure the Australian parties that there was absolutely no chance that the pandas would not arrive in Australia on schedule because this had been agreed by the two leaders Bob Hawke and Zhao ZiYang, and it had been widely publicised.

I predicted that negotiations would go right up to the door of the airplane that would be sent to collect the pandas. Then my term in Beijing finished and I came home. My successor as cultural counsellor, Dr Nicholas Jose, subsequently told me that, in fact, they went past that moment because, when the Qantas jumbo pulled up to load the pandas, the Chinese determined that it was inappropriate for their national animal to be pictured waving goodbye beside the Qantas kangaroo. At the very last moment they switched the loading to an Air China plane, the photographers took their pictures, and the pandas flew with their own national carrier to Tokyo, where they were loaded onto a Qantas aircraft. 

The lessons here are pretty obvious. Don’t be offended by sudden changes – both sides have domestic electorates to which they play. Be curious and study the case from the other’s point of view. Deals reached at the highest levels of government are given the highest level of respect because serious national face has been invested in them. Australia wants meetings at the highest level of government to begin to sort things out, so it doesn’t help at all for our PM to play the macho man when a little humility and large dollops of courtesy would go a lot further. Clear and positive objectives, a consistency of values, a polite firmness, sincerity and patience are very important in every dealing. 

Negotiations will be far more productive if you to start with those areas where you are likely to find agreement and build trust from there. There are many possibilities for Australia: sporting and cultural exchanges, joint medical and agricultural research, or even, dare I say it, collaboration on climate change, where Australia is the laggard. There might be joint aid projects in some Pacific and Asian countries that are in both countries’ national interest – for example, promoting the education of women. For now, Australia needs to put to one side some of the more difficult issues. We should have learnt that megaphone diplomacy is entirely counterproductive, especially when we are using someone else’s megaphone. 

The Chinese sense of time is very different to ours. They have a much longer time horizon and vastly greater patience in working towards a desired outcome. In 1986 when I accompanied Barry Jones, then the minister for science, to China’s rocket-launching base at XiChang in the mountains of Sichuan province, we were taken out to a scenic Buddhist temple above a remote mountain lake. Suddenly speedboats came roaring around the corner pulling a group of water-skiers. I turned to our military host to ask what they were doing in this out-of-the-way location. “They are training for the Olympics,” he said matter-of-factly. I replied with the retort that waterskiing was not an Olympic sport. “Ahhh,” he said thoughtfully. “That is right, but when it is, China will be ready.”

Clear objectives, long-term strategic plans and proper investment to achieve them are hallmarks of China’s approach. China sets ambitious national goals and works hard to fulfil them; China thinks long-term. Australia thinks in short electoral cycles and our politicians are motivated more by the desire to attract votes than the long-term national benefit. This leads to a lack of discipline, as individual politicians try to differentiate themselves or score points. The first thing most Australian politicians can do to improve relations with China is simply to shut up. 

There are lessons we can learn from China. I think of the extraordinary development of infrastructure across China in the last few decades. Tullamarine Airport opened in Melbourne in July 1970. At that time, we were promised a fast train would soon run from the airport into the city. For 50 years, successive governments have told us it was coming soon. In the last 20 years China has built almost 40,000 kilometres of fast train tracks and countless new stations, with high-speed trains carrying many millions of people across the country every day. Today we still don’t have even a tram for the 23 kilometres from the city centre to Tullamarine. 

It is time to start rebuilding trust. It’s time, as former prime minister Paul Keating said, for Australia to find its security within our own region rather than from our region through dependence on our US protector. Our long-term prosperity and security depend on good relations across our own region and not reliance on an erratic and distant ally focused on its own interests and with a history of dragging us into futile wars. Many years ago, the conservative PM Malcolm Fraser warned us of the dangers of attaching ourselves too closely to the Americans. And if I might end with a prime ministerial trifecta, I recall that Malcolm Turnbull offended China mightily when he misquoted Mao ZeDong and when he said, referring to the foreign interference legislation: “The Australian people have stood up.”

I only wish we would.

 

A version of this essay was delivered as the 2021 Kidman Lecture at the University of Adelaide, as part of the Festival of Ideas.

Carrillo Gantner

Carrillo Gantner AC has held many roles in the arts and Asian–Australian relations, including founding director of Playbox Theatre, chairman of Asialink at Melbourne University and president of the Victorian Arts Centre Trust.

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