Is there a way forward for China-Australia relations?

By Li Aixin Source: Global Times Published: 2020/7/3 23:53:46

Allan Behm Photo: Courtesy of Allan Behm

Editor's Note:

Amid mounting tensions between China and Australia, Allan Behm (Behm), head of the International and Security Affairs program at The Australia Institute, Canberra, recently published a paper contending the tensions between the two countries were largely caused by Australia's lack of understanding of China. Compared with ever growing strident rhetoric from Australian media outlets and politicians, Behm's view pointed to both a reason and a solution. Why are the number of Australia's experts and their knowledge of China far from sufficient? What are the differences between China-Australia relations and China-US relations? Will Beijing-Canberra ties continue to worsen or rebound after bottoming out? Behm shared his insights with Global Times (GT) reporter Li Aixin in a written interview. 

GT: What drove you to write the paper "How Good is the Australia-China Relationship?"

I am worried by the strident tone that has begun to dominate the public exchanges between China and Australia. I am concerned that some of China's recent actions may not have been in its best interests, or in the best interests of China's neighbors, or in Australia's best interests.

Equally, I am concerned that some of Australia's actions, such as the response to the outbreak of the coronavirus, may not have been in Australia's best interests, or in China's best interests, or in the best interests of the global community. 

There are many things that Australia and China can do to our mutual advantage. The relationship is much more than minerals and energy exports to China, and the import of manufactured goods from China. People-to-people exchanges are critical, both ways. Students from China are very welcome in our universities, just as tourists from China are very welcome in our cities and resorts. 

But it must be both ways: Australia needs to understand much more about China.

The so-called hawks take a narrow view of China. They are more driven by fear of China than by confidence in our ability to realize the opportunities that China and Australia could achieve. Thoughtful Australians agree with Madam Fu Ying, China's former ambassador to Australia: We need humility and tolerance, and adhere to communication, learning and openness.

GT: Do you think the Australian government and think tanks will address the issue (of not having sufficient knowledge and understanding of China)?

I am confident that Australian universities and think tanks understand that Australia's collective knowledge and understanding of China is small. As a nation, Australia needs to invest in language, cultural and political studies of China. If we are unable to speak to each other, we cannot understand each other. I am confident that both sides will step back from the heated exchanges of the past few months and pursue a conversation that is calmer and more considered.

GT: During your recent interview with The New Daily, you said there are only 20 academics and think tanks in Australia with expertise on China, which is far from enough. There is a large number of Chinese living and working in Australia. Why haven't think tanks and the government found more people and resources to get to know China better?

Australians live, think and work mainly in the Anglosphere. While Australia is becoming a more multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-racial society, most of Australia's business, political and public service leaders speak only English. They do not see a need to be able to speak the languages of Asia. But language is the principal window into culture: If we cannot speak Mandarin [Putonghua], for instance, we cannot understand China's political and social culture. Young people of Chinese heritage are not yet in leadership positions. But when they are, this lack of knowledge will change.

Australians have been slow to appreciate that the world is changing rapidly, and that we must invest more in learning about the cultures of Asia. Successive Australian governments have recognized that they need to invest more in Asian languages, economic and political studies, but have not allocated adequate funding priorities to do so.

GT: In your view, what role has the US played in China-Australia ties?

When China's premier Zhou Enlai and Australia's about-to-be prime minister Gough Whitlam first met in 1972, they discussed Australia's security relationship with the US. That was a product of cultural and historical relationships dating back to the beginning of the 20th century and strengthened through two world wars. Both sides accepted that Australia looked to the US to guarantee its security in circumstances of a breakdown in the global strategic order.

Australia continues to look to the US as its security partner. Accordingly, Australia consults with the US on a broad range of economic, political and security matters. So Australia listens to US views even when the rhetoric between the US and China is heated, as it has been under the Trump administration. 

It is fair to suggest that US concerns about China have influenced Australia's policy in recent months, especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is also fair to note that Australia often pursues a different approach from the US, as it did in joining the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and as it did in advocating for China's membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership when President Trump decided to withdraw from the agreement.

GT: What do you think are the major differences between China-Australia relations and China-US relations? What do you think is now the biggest challenge in the development of China-Australia ties?

There are many differences between Australia's relationships with China and the US. We have a new and emerging relationship with China, while we have an old and settled relationship with the US. Our relationship with China focuses on economic and trade relations, while our relationship with the US includes cultural affinities, constitutional and legal similarities, long-standing academic exchanges, political dialogue and extensive security relationships - in addition to a long-standing economic and investment relationship.

In short, Australia's relationship with China, at this stage of its development, is significantly less complex and multifaceted than our relationship with the US. 

The biggest obstacle to the development of China-Australia ties now is the sharp decline in trust, which in turn is based on respect. It is imperative that China and Australia restore that respect and trust. 

President Xi Jinping has visited Australia five times. During his last visit, five years ago, he said: "The ocean is vast because it admits numerous rivers. It is the steady stream of mutual understanding and friendship between our two peoples that have created the vast ocean of goodwill between China and Australia." 

That's what we must restore, and to that end it would be very important that the Australian prime minister visits Beijing to renew both communication and confidence.

GT: There was a time when Australia was pursuing a balanced diplomacy. Why is it not now? 

A balanced diplomacy is always based on a clear understanding of national interests, and an understanding of the national interests of other nations. Since 1972, China and Australia have pursued a balanced diplomacy, with considerable success. But in recent years, Beijing and Canberra have focused more on differences in values than on convergence of interests, such as economic growth, regional and global security, progress on cutting global carbon emissions, nuclear disarmament and, more recently, controlling and eliminating the coronavirus. There are two things we both need to do: understand each other, and engage in calm conversation.

GT: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on July 1 that Australia will spend roughly $186 billion over the next 10 years on high-tech defense programs focused on the Indo-Pacific region. Some Australian media outlets have suggested that China is the unspoken threat at the center of this new defense strategy. Can you comment on Australia's new defense strategy against the current backdrop? How do you view Australian media's analysis of a "China threat?"

Prime Minister Morrison's defense spending announcement, coinciding with current instability in the Australia-China relationship, reflects his government's current political preoccupations. But it is important to distinguish between the rhetoric and the substance. While the prime minister's speech used some colorful language, the force structure he announced, and the strategic posture it reflects, is essentially defensive and reactive. It does not substantially change the spending trendline that has been the policy of several governments, nor afford Australia the ability to wage war. The planned acquisition of 12 French submarines, for instance, was announced by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull's government, and the replacement of the Harpoon missile has been in the pipeline for some time.

GT: You mentioned that over the past couple of years the relationship between the two countries has fallen to its lowest point. What do you think will happen next with bilateral relations? Will they continue to worsen or rebound after bottoming out? Under what circumstances do you think bilateral ties could be relaxed?

It is difficult to imagine that the China-Australia relationship could become any worse at the political level. It will remain broken until our leaders take a decision to repair it. That is why it would be a good initiative if Prime Minister Morrison were to visit President Xi Jinping. 

At the economic level, Chinese and Australian business leaders need to ensure that we continue build the economic relationship to the benefit of both parties, especially as we seek to return to economic growth and prosperity as we emerge from the pandemic. And our long-standing scientific links should assist both parties to address the causes, consequences and best management practice relating to COVID-19. 

As President Xi Jinping said in the Australian Parliament in 2014, China and Australia will continue to have differences. But we should now focus on the things we have in common, and the things on which we can collaborate. 

The world faces three existential threats to humanity: climate change; nuclear weapons; and pandemics. These require urgent attention. China and Australia, working together, can make an enormous difference in these fields, both to our mutual advantage and to the advantage of the entire global community.

GT: Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Australia, which period do you think witnessed the most mature, rational and effective Australian policy toward China policy? And is there anything during that period that current Australian authorities can learn from?

Australia and China have enjoyed quite long periods of calm and productive relations. The relationship has worked best when our leaders were able to talk to each other. This is what prime ministers Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd and Gillard were able to do with premiers Zhou Enlai, Hua Guofeng, Zhao Ziyang, and presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. And, very importantly, President Xi Jinping visited Australia in 2014. During this long period, China and Australia were optimistic about the future. But in the last five years, the relationship has been troubled, partly because of misunderstandings, and partly because of growing levels of fear in Australia concerning China's growing power. Both Australia and China need to appreciate that fear is never a sound basis for an enduring relationship. We need to re-learn how to identify mutual opportunity, and then how to bring it into reality.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT,T10

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