In the nearly half-century that Australia and China have enjoyed diplomatic ties since Gough Whitlam’s Labor government recognised the Chinese communist regime in December 1972, the relationship between the two nations has been mostly pragmatic. And that’s the way it should be.
It’s common for the pro-Beijing lobby in Australia to point to Australia’s economic dependence on China in recent years. This overlooks the fact China is also dependent on Australia. Chinese do not buy Australian goods (particularly mineral and agricultural products) and services (particularly education) because they like us. Rather, China subsumes Australian exports because Australia sells high-quality products at competitive prices within a legal system that outlaws corruption and honours contracts.
On rare occasions, however, there has been emotion, most notably on September 14, 1976, when Malcolm Fraser as prime minister, with the support of Whitlam as opposition leader, moved a condolence motion in the House of Representatives on the death of China’s communist leader Mao Zedong. Fraser declared that Mao had brought about internal peace within his country. And Whitlam described Mao as the inspiration of the Chinese people. Neither pointed out that Mao’s regime brought about 40 million deaths between 1958 and 1962 in the forced famine that went under the name Great Leap Forward, nor that the dictatorship purged 100 million during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and Mao’s death a decade later.
The Communist Party that rules today is a descendant of the regime established by Mao in 1949. Certainly the repression is nowhere near that which took place in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and into the 80s. But China remains a dictatorship that presides over political incarcerations and human rights abuses.
It’s not uncommon for democracies such as Australia to deal with dictatorships such as China. Yet it is unlikely that Australia’s political leaders will have as close a relationship with the self-selected leaders of China as with the elected leaders of democracies.
On Thursday, Malcolm Turnbull’s government released the 2017 foreign policy white paper, the first such document since 2003. Perhaps the most controversial part of the white paper turns on its reference to China pursuing “its own interests” in the region and on the statement that it is “strongly in Australia’s interests … to support US global leadership, including by maintaining the strength of our alliance” with the US. Many in the local Beijing lobby run the line that, eventually, Australia will have to decide whether to line up with China or the US in the Asia-Pacific and advocate the former. This was not the policy of the governments led by John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. The Turnbull government has continued this approach. Moreover, it has broad support on this issue from the Labor opposition. In a speech in Melbourne last Wednesday that preceded the release of the white paper, opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong provided strong backing for the Australian-American alliance. This despite the fact, in recent times, former Labor prime minister Paul Keating and former foreign minister Gareth Evans have queried aspects of the value of the alliance.
In a speech in Washington, DC, last September, former senior Australian diplomat Dennis Richardson said “there are elements in Australia … who seek to use President Trump’s unpopularity for their own advantage”. Richardson added that the agenda of this group was to undermine the credibility of the alliance.
Certainly, Donald J. Trump is unpopular in Australia — especially on the left. Yet it may be that his strong stance on North Korea, compared with the softer approach of the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations — could resonate in the region.
Critics of the Turnbull government’s policy towards China neglect to mention the fact nations such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia want the US to remain a viable presence in the Asia-Pacific. The Philippines once held this view and may revert to it in the future. Beijing’s move into the South China Sea is of concern to most, if not all, nations in the region.
The white paper stresses the need for Australia to continue co-operation with like-minded partners “who support strong rules and institutions”. These include Britain, the EU, Japan, Canada and New Zealand. Elsewhere, it focuses on the Indo-Pacific democracies of Japan, Indonesia, India and South Korea. It re-enforces the Australia-Japan-US trilateral dialogue and the separate dialogues with India and Japan. Moreover, the white paper states Australia’s intention to “build on the growing strategic collaboration between Australia, India and Japan”.
Australia is also seeking formal discussions with a view to restoring the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, Japan, India and Australia that existed briefly during Howard’s prime ministership and was discontinued by Rudd. Writing in The Australian Financial Review on November 11, former Australian ambassador to China Geoff Raby described this as a “bad, bad idea” since it is a “potentially dangerous response to China’s ascendancy and flies in the face of more than 30 years of Australian policy engagement with China”.
Raby’s critique overlooks the fact it is in Australia’s interest to work closely with Indo-Pacific friends such as the US, Japan and India. There is no reason the formation of such a group should be regarded as dangerous.
In any event, China is unlikely to abandon the real benefits of its relationship with Australia on account of Australia’s relationships with other nations.