Australia needs to approach its relationship with China in a spirit of multi-dimensional engagement and to build mutual respect by recognising China’s emerging status as a rule maker in international relations, according to Gareth Evans.
As relations between the two countries show some signs of repair after recent tensions, Professor Evans, Chancellor of Australian National University, argues Australia should not just see China purely in economic and trade terms.
“We should be trying to build mutually beneficial connections at multiple levels, not just see the country as a one-dimensional economic partner,” he said in a recent speech to a key Chinese-Australian audience in Melbourne.
“We should not hold back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values and … we should be prepared to push back when China overreaches externally.
“But we should be looking to build a new maturity, and a new complexity, into our relationship.”
Following is an edited version of a keynote address delivered by Professor Evans, a former foreign minister of Australia and former president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, gave to the Chinese Community Council of Australia (Victoria Chapter) Conference in August, titled Australia-China relations and the challenge for Chinese Australians.
“Chinese Australians make up a hugely significant component of our non-Anglo, non-European, multicultural Australia, whether they be recent arrivals or from families living among us for many generations – and this year we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the first recorded Chinese-born settler in Australia, Mak Sai Ying, who arrived in 1818.
The figures speak for themselves: 1.2 million Australians (5.6 per cent of the overall population) have Chinese ancestry, whether from the mainland PRC (People’s Republic of China), or from forebears living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia or elsewhere in South-East Asia or the wider world.
Net migration is outpacing births in our population growth and people born in China are now the largest single group of migrants, accounting for 15.8 per cent of the total.
Of the more than 550,000 international students now in Australia, 31 per cent of them – around 170,000 – come from China, with 125,000 in our universities, making a huge contribution to their financial viability.
And Chinese Australians are not only present among us in large numbers: you already make a fantastically valuable contribution to our society, particularly in business and the professions – although not yet, it has to be acknowledged, and this is a matter of concern, in the public sector, politics or the media on the scale your numbers, high levels of educational attainment and other talents, and socio-economic standing in the wider community should be producing.
What I think is unarguably true for the future is that this community of yours is going to become an ever more indispensably valuable resource as we all come to terms with the reality that the rest of the 21st century is not only going to be the Asian century, but very much the Chinese century.
The spectacular rise of China, accompanied as it has been by a recently accelerating decline in the authority and credibility of the United States, has changed the focus from what has gone right with China – including hauling more than 800 million people out of poverty in just a few decades, and generating an economic boom from which there has been no greater beneficiary around the world than Australia – to what could go wrong.
Concerns about China’s influence in this and other countries in the region – as ill-founded or exaggerated as many of them might be – have created a situation where Chinese Australians are coming under scrutiny and suspicion, to the extent in some cases even of being thought to be potential fifth-columnists, in a way we simply have not seen before, and in a way in which all of us here find profoundly distressing.
A bleak view is that we may be condemned to seeing some of the concern about Chinese Australians’ commitment hovering around, at least on the fringes of public debate, as long as it takes to become obvious that China is no more likely to become a military threat to Australia than Italy or Greece or India, and that in that context Chinese Australian are no more likely to become fifth-columnists than Italian Australians or Greek Australians or Indian Australians.
Whatever concerns we may legitimately have about Chinese overreach externally – and I will come back to this – I don’t see the Chinese leadership now and into the future as an exception. But it may take some time for some in Australia, as elsewhere, to become persuaded of that.
The more immediate concern we all have is that Chinese Australians become collateral damage in an environment of bad bilateral relations, of the kind we have been experiencing since early 2017.
Since (former) prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s University of NSW speech on August 7 it may be that we can be confident the worst storms have passed, and that the days of Beijing practising ‘doghouse diplomacy’ – declining to host ministerial visits, forcing the cancellation of trade fairs, threatening to stop students coming here and so on – are now over.
But it is not yet completely clear that we are out of the woods, or what price we will have to pay to stay there, so it is important that we understand what went wrong, and why, and explore what might be necessary to keep our relationship on a sustainably positive path in future – and in the process keep our Chinese Australians out of the collateral damage firing line.
Australia-China relations have been in the freezer before, notably in 1949-72 (before recognition), in 1989-91 (post-Tiananmen), in 1996 (with John Howard seen as calling for containment in the context of Taiwan) and in 2008-09 (beginning with Kevin Rudd’s ‘zhengyou’ speech at PKU [Peking University], with its unwelcome observation that a true friend is critical friend).
Each such period has passed when both sides have decided to move on, seeing larger benefits for both sides in constructive relationship. What has made the 2017-18 difficult to escape is that it has been fed by at least four distinct causes.
First, there were a series of statements by senior Coalition government figures seen as insensitive, disrespectful, involving megaphone diplomacy or all of the above.
(Then) foreign minister Julie Bishop said in Singapore in March 2017 that China would not fully realise its potential until it became a democracy.
Mr Turnbull said in December 2017, at the time of introducing new foreign interference and espionage legislation, that (deliberately using Mao’s canonical phrase) Australia had ‘stood up’ against outside efforts to interfere in our internal affairs.
The then deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce in January 2018, commenting on the US National Security Strategy identifying China as a ‘strategic competitor’, said it had the capacity to ‘overrun’ Australia.
And, also in January 2018, then minister for international development and the Pacific, Concetta Fieravanti-Wells, accused China of funding ‘useless’ infrastructure projects and ‘roads that go nowhere’ in the Pacific.
I don’t for a moment think we should ever be excessively deferential in our foreign policy – not least in relation to China, whose statecraft, as Kevin Rudd rightly put it, ‘respects consistency and strength and is utterly contemptuous of weakness’.
But it has always been the case in international relations that words are bullets, and one has to be particularly careful how one uses them – particularly publicly, and especially so in Asia where face is always so culturally important.
It seems that Mr Turnbull has at last learned this lesson: his language at UNSW was appropriately emollient, and the Chinese side reacted accordingly.
The second factor in the freeze has been the tumultuous debate over alleged Chinese undue influence and interference in Australian domestic politics and higher education, which inevitably generated a very negative reaction from Beijing.
That debate was initiated by a Fairfax Media/Australian Broadcasting Corporation investigation in June 2017 and fuelled subsequently by media articles by former prime ministerial adviser John Garnaut and the book Silent Invasion by Clive Hamilton, not to mention some apparent backroom contributions from ASIO and the Australian intelligence community, all purporting to describe how Communist Party of China organs like the United Front Work Department were infiltrating Australian institutions, including with the help of high-profile Chinese-Australian political donors and businessmen Chau Chak Wing and Huang Xiangmo.
The smoke here was not entirely without fire, with the exposure in particular of former Senator Sam Dastyari’s naivete in trading party donations for policy support, but there has been much more speculation than hard evidence when it comes to most of the other claims of undue influence, for example in the university sector in relation to influence on curricula, pressure on lecturers, and intimidation of and by PRC students, and perhaps of Chinese Australians as well.
That said, it was legitimate for the Australian Parliament this year to enact legislation, as other countries have done, strengthening protections against interference by other governments general, including creating a register for individuals or entities undertaking activities on behalf of ‘foreign principals’ and introducing new offences, including the theft of trade secrets on behalf of a foreign government.
China remains unhappy about the way in which media and public commentary constantly singled out China in the debate, even if the legislation itself did not, but seems now prepared to not let this legislation be a continuing irritant in the bilateral relationship, but it does remain unhappy about the way in which media and public commentary constantly singled out China in the debate.
The third factor contributing to the freeze has been Chinese concern that Australia is overreacting to perceived security risks from Chinese investment and other commercial activity.
While the issue has arisen previously around transport and communications infrastructure – including the Port of Darwin and NSW power lines – the really cutting edge continues to be the future of Huawei.
The telecommunications giant was banned from participating in the National Broadband Network in 2013, and discussions are currently under way within the Australian Government regarding its exclusion from participating in Australia’s 5G network. (The company has subsequently been excluded).
Huawei insists it is a private employee-owned company and operates in line with Australian regulation and laws, as it does elsewhere.
But Australian national security agencies remain concerned about the possible technical vulnerability of the whole system, in the context of Chinese laws which allow Beijing to order businesses to ‘support, cooperate with and collaborate in national intelligence work’.
The best answer to Chinese hostility to Australia and others making security-based judgments barring Chinese investment has always been to ask whether China itself would accept a comparable investment in sensitive sectors from a US or other foreign company.
If it manifestly would not, it is hard for the indignation to be sustained.
The remaining factor contributing to the bilateral freeze since early 2017 has been differences over foreign policy, with Australia seen to be jumping excessively to US tunes – not unusual in the past but perhaps seen as less understandable in the context of the new Trump administration’s highly erratic behaviour in the region.
We have certainly been among the firmest opponents – at least rhetorically – of China’s overreaching claims and militarising activity in the South China Sea in defiance of the ruling in 2016 of The Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration, which led to Chinese state-run media calling Australia a paper cat.
We have joined in taking some steps to give new life to the ‘Quad’ – the US/India/Japan/Australia grouping seen by China as a polarising alliance dedicated to China’s containment, although this has not yet developed further than four-way talks between each country’s admirals and officials, with India remaining reluctant to have Australia join its annual Malabar naval exercise with the US and Japan.
And we have expressed some concern about the geostrategic implications of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, particularly in its possible reach into the South Pacific, reinforcing concerns that China is has been using its aid program for political advantage there.
None of these issues need be showstoppers for cordial future bilateral relations, but each of them needs to be handled carefully.
We can best reinforce our position in the Pacific by lifting our own game rather than overtly trying to undermine China’s, which has not been as extensive or intrusive as sometimes painted.
We should recognise the essential legitimacy of the scale and ambition of the Belt and Road Initiative, be a little less anxious about its regional security implications, and prepared – with appropriate commercial caution – to be an active participant in the enterprise, as the government now seems to be.
The most difficult issue to handle is the South China Sea, where China’s overreach has been visible, and troubling to many countries in the region.
While Beijing manifestly does not want to provoke violent conflict anywhere, it is clearly intent on recreating as much of its historical hegemonic, tributary relationship with its southern neighbours as it can get away with, and it is important in this context that – if that overreach continues, and diplomatic efforts currently being renewed to smooth the waters with an agreed ASEAN-China maritime Code of Conduct make little progress – there be some pushback.
I would support that in the form of so-called freedom of navigation exercises in the contested waters, preferably not alongside the US but rather the key regional players Indonesia and Vietnam.
A more positive, and I suspect potentially most productive, way of restoring some real, lasting mutual respect into the Australia-China relationship, would be for Australia to more overtly accept the legitimacy of China’s demand to be now not just a rule-taker but a participant in global rule-making.
And in that context we should aim to work much more closely with China on the whole range of global and regional public goods issues – from climate change to arms control, from terrorism to health pandemics, from peace-keeping to responding to mass atrocity crimes – on which Beijing has in recent times been playing a more interested and constructive role than has generally been recognised.
The critical point – and I am glad to see last year’s Foreign Policy White Paper spelling this out fairly clearly – is that Australia needs to approach our relationship with China in a spirit of multi-dimensional engagement.
We should be trying to build mutually beneficial connections at multiple levels, not just see the country as a one-dimensional economic partner, crucial for our prosperity but to be treated warily and confrontationally on anything to do with security issues in the hope and expectation, almost certainly now misguided, that the US will do the heavy lifting for us on that front.
None of this means becoming Beijing’s patsy, any more than we should be Washington’s: we should not hold back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values and, as I have said, we should be prepared to push back when China overreaches externally.
But we should be looking to build a new maturity, and a new complexity, into our relationship.
The signs are already there that the wider community is not nearly as concerned about China as a threat or source of unacceptable influence and interference as some, including those in our security and intelligence community, would like us to believe.
Putting the tensions of the past two years behind us will also go a long way to ensuring that the anxiety and discomfort that Chinese Australians have unquestionably been feeling in this difficult environment will not be repeated.”
• Gareth Evans is Chancellor of the Australian National University, former foreign minister of Australia, former president and CEO of the International Crisis Group.