New attitude and approach to China needed

New attitude and approach to China needed

Tue, 15/05/2018 - 13:31
Li Turnbull

Closer engagement between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chinese dignitaries such as Premier Li Keqiang wil be key to reducing tension in the country's economic relationship. Photo: Reuters

For many years the China-Australia relationship has been a largely one-dimensional one based on economies and trade.

Since the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in December 1972, and China’s subsequent growth, Australia has struggled to find the appropriate balance within the bilateral relationship between economies, trade, geopolitics and security.

On the one hand Australia wants to expand trade opportunities, on the other it sees China as a major national security threat.

This point was exacerbated in last year’s foreign policy white paper, when Australia called for the United States to retain a central role in Asia and identified its concerns of China’s growth and expanding influence in the region.

Such an approach causes confusion with the Chinese leadership, because they see Australia place value on its trade relationship with China but seemingly look towards the US for guidance on geopolitical matters.

Until we can find and strike that balance, our relationship with China will never improve.

Even before the media investigation into and reporting of Chinese influence and Communist Party of China (CPC) interference came to light, fears of China’s growth and presence featured prominently in the Australian public.

For example, the Australian union movement’s campaign against the China-Australia free trade agreement was seen by many, including the then Abbott coalition government, as racist and xenophobic.

The union movement, led mainly by the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, opposed the free trade agreement because it claimed it would allow Chinese companies to ‘steal’ Australian jobs by bringing in their own workers.

Other examples included banning telecommunications giant Huawei’s access to the NBN, and opposition to Chinese foreign investment despite the relatively low amount ($87.2 billion in 2016) compared with Australia’s largest foreign investment source, the US, at $861 billion.

These factors, and the increased presence of foreign ownership of Australian property from overseas Chinese buyers, have ignited fears of a ‘Chinese takeover’ and fuelled anti-Chinese attitudes.

The fallout of the public discussion and debate on Chinese influence and CPC interference has resulted in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull proposing to introduce legislation aimed at preventing foreign interference in politics.

In an attempt to justify the new laws, Mr Turnbull awkwardly borrowed a quote from Mao Zedong and put it in an Australian context by claiming the Australian people “will stand up”, thereby causing an exchange of political rhetoric from both sides.

The perceived singling out of China when discussing the laws has angered China, which has consistently denied allegations of interference and influence in Australia’s domestic matters and institutions.

Rather than discussing these issues openly with its Australian counterparts, the Chinese government has responded with threats to trade and issued a public safety warning for Chinese students living and studying in Australia.

The rhetoric continued with the Australian Minister for International Development Concetta Fierravanti-Wells accusing China of funding useless infrastructure projects in the Pacific region.

Australia’s reaction and response to reports of China’s intention to construct a military base in Vanuatu demonstrated Australia’s lack of sense when it comes to dealing with China. Instead of condemning China outright and wedging Vanuatu to choose between its two bilateral partners, Australia could have used this opportunity to reach out to China and Vanuatu to identify joint research and investment partnerships.

Such actions would ensure Australia has a say and place at the decision-making table to ensure our regional interests are not jeopardised, and to hold China accountable if it ever steps out of line.

The fallout and ongoing exchange of words in the media illustrates how fragile the bilateral relationship is.

It has deteriorated to the point where both sides are accusing each other of delaying and refusing visa applications for students, ministers and diplomats.

When it comes to our relationship and engagement with China, the focus now is not just a change of tone and narrative but also a change of attitude and approach.

The relationship needs to be multi-dimensional (not just about economics and trade), with the intention to move beyond the surface type level of engagement we are witnessing.

Both sides need to identify shared values and experiences and find common ground. China needs to recognise and respect Australia’s role and strategic interests in Asia and the Pacific while Australia should recognise China’s growing role as a global rule-maker that needs its own strategic space and cease relying on an increasingly protectionist and withdrawn US to guide its China engagement strategy.

Australia’s China engagement strategy should focus on getting closer to the Chinese leadership and build greater mutual trust, respect and confidence.

A higher level of trust and respect is needed if we want to be in a position to positively influence China’s bilateral and multilateral behaviour.

Australia should strive towards establishing enough trust with China where any pushback on China would not be seen by the Chinese leadership as a direct attack or criticism.

A starting point would be more consistent high-level annual strategic dialogues from our political leaders and working in tandem with our business, education and community representatives to build connections at multiple levels.

We need to shift the relationship from the current one-dimensional approach to a multi-dimensional one where all facets of the relationship from economies to geopolitics to national security and aid can be discussed openly without judgment and condemnation. There is no reason why the prime minister and government officials can’t pick up the phone to contact their Chinese counterparts when the relationship runs into obstacles and challenges.

The fact of the matter is China will continue to work towards increasing its role in the Asia-Pacific and, with the decline of US influence, getting our China engagement strategy right should be a key priority for Australian foreign policy making.


Jieh-Yung Lo is a Chinese-Australian writer, analyst and commentator. He tweets at @jiehyunglo.