Gareth Evans outlines a five-point strategy aimed at restoring stability to the bilateral relations between China and Australia

Gareth Evans outlines a five-point strategy aimed at restoring stability to the bilateral relations between China and Australia

Australia’s China problem - official contacts frozen and many of our exports under siege - is now gaining attention far beyond our shores. Much of the world, given stark evidence of the economic havoc that China’s displeasure can wreak, and of the ugly depths to which its “wolf warrior diplomacy” can descend, is trying to understand both how we fell into this hole, and whether we can climb out of it with our dignity intact.

How have Australia’s relations with China deteriorated so spectacularly? The short answer is that, although the most recent escalations have come from the Chinese side, for several years Australia has not properly managed the need both to get along with China and to stand up to it. As Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to China, has argued, we have failed to devise a middle way between sycophancy and hostility. Or, to cite the immortal wisdom of the 1930s Scottish labor leader Jimmy Maxton: “If you can’t ride two horses at once, you shouldn’t be in the bloody circus.”

Australia’s huge economic dependence on China - the market for more than one-third of our exports, far more than the United States or any European country - gives us no choice but to get along with our larger regional neighbor. It is fanciful to think we can find alternative markets on that scale any time soon, or perhaps ever.

But, as a self-respecting sovereign country committed to a decent, rules-based international order, nor can we simply roll over when confronted with many aspects of China’s behavior. These include its defiance of international law in the South China Sea, egregious domestic violations of human rights in Xinjiang (and in the case of Hong Kong, of treaty obligations as well), discriminatory and overprotective trade and industrial policies, periodic cyberattacks, and attempts to exercise undue influence over Australia’s governing institutions. Most recently and extraordinarily, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted a fake image of an Australian soldier murdering an Afghan child.

On these issues, the question is not whether Australia should stand up to China, but how. Unfortunately, our recent responses to official Chinese behavior have made us extremely vulnerable – much more so than other regional powers such as Japan, which have been performing a similarly tricky balancing act vis-à-vis China.

One error is what the French statesman Talleyrand once described as “excessive zeal” – evident in the strident, tone-deaf language used by then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when he introduced legislation targeting undue Chinese influence in 2017. There has also been too much over-the-top behaviour, such as the June 2020 police and security-service raids on the homes of Chinese journalists living in Australia. And there has been too much outright offensiveness on the part of self-described parliamentary “Wolverines,” who have channeled US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s anti-communist rhetoric and tended to demonise our hugely valuable Chinese-Australian community.

In addition, Australia has failed to consider fully the risks of not only irritating but also hurting China, as we have done by not just joining but leading international efforts to shut out the telecommunications firm Huawei and introducing tough foreign-investment restrictions and foreign-influence laws. For a medium-size, middleweight, and highly economically vulnerable country, caution is sometimes the better part of valour. China needs Australia’s iron ore, but it can comfortably live without our coal, wine, food, and student and tourist destinations.

Moreover, many of Australia’s recent stands – in particular our operationally and diplomatically ill-prepared braying for an inquiry into China’s COVID-19 response – have fueled the narrative that we are a US “deputy sheriff.” This has left Australia – a far easier target than America – exposed to even heavier Chinese counter-punching.

Analysis of the problem points the way to the solution, for both Australia and others whom China might similarly target. Getting out of the hole will not be quick or easy, but it can be done, by following five guidelines.

First and foremost, Australian leaders need to stop digging and not add any more grounds for complaint to those already on China’s charge sheet. That does not mean backing off on issues like the South China Sea, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Nor does it entail reversing our failure to curb China-unfriendly press comment (though some self-restraint from the media would be a consummation devoutly to be wished). But it does mean thinking carefully about whether it would be wise to introduce even more legislation inhibiting Chinese investment and partnerships with China by universities and state governments.

Second, we must moderate our official language, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison and some of his senior ministers have belatedly started to do. This should include emphasising the positives in the Australia-China relationship, and remembering that, in diplomacy, words are bullets – even when our criticism of Chinese behaviour is entirely legitimate.

Third, the optics of independence are vital. Our leaders should make it absolutely clear that any negative Australian position on China reflects our own national judgment and not the guidance of imperial masters in Washington, DC.

Fourth, Australia needs to acknowledge the legitimacy and inevitability of some of China’s international aspirations. That means not getting overly agitated that China wants strategic space, the military capacity to protect its economic lifelines, and a level of global policymaking influence commensurate with its new strength. We should also accept that some of China’s commercial concerns may not be entirely groundless. Many objective observers think that Australia has overdone its anti-dumping complaints against China, which have hugely exceeded the number coming in the other direction.

Finally, Australia should work hard to identify issues on which it shares genuine common ground with China. We should use what’s left of our reputation as a good international citizen committed to effective multilateral solutions to global and regional public-goods issues, as well as China’s desire (though not much in evidence recently) to project soft power. On issues like climate change, peacekeeping, counter-terrorism, nuclear and other arms control, and – for the most part – responding to pandemics, China has played a more interested, constructive, and potentially cooperative role than has generally been recognised.

Once adults – tough-minded though they may be – are back in charge in Washington under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, US-China tensions will likely ease. And if, in parallel, Australia’s leaders keep their heads down and act a little more maturely than they generally have done during this government, then a resumption of something like normal Australia-China relations over the course of the next year or so will certainly be within reach.


Gareth Evans, Australia’s foreign minister from 1988 to 1996 and President of the International Crisis Group from 2000 to 2009, is a former chancellor of the Australian National University. He is the author of The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020, and published here with permission.

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32 Comments

Talk about an own goal. Whats that old saying ? "Never bite the hand that feeds you "

Own goals alright. For a start Darwin, regionally Australia’s most vitally strategic port, control of which in the hands of China. No wonder the CCP sees push over up there in neon lights.

From the links:

A reciprocal access agreement between Japan and Australia, which is close to finalisation, will result in an escalation of military co-operation exercises between the two nations, such as the recent Operation Malabar naval exercise in the South China Sea.

Regional security amid the rise of China will be front and centre on the agenda when Scott Morrison holds talks with his Japanese counterpart, Yoshihide Suga, in Tokyo on Tuesday night.

The Prime Minister’s dash to Japan to meet the new Japanese Prime Minister – the first foreign leader to do so – should be welcomed.

It is unusual in terms of diplomatic protocol for an established leader to visit a newly appointed leader, not the other way around, unless it is the US for which normal protocol seldom applies.

Morrison's haste may have made himself an adversary of a much better armed ally of China in his zeal to cement defense agreements with nations far from his own shores.
Russia Deploys Missiles To Islands Claimed By Japan After Tense US Navy Standoff

Perhaps the issue is not the Australian stance but the over reliance on China for their export lead economy.

Any country that exports 30% of their exports to a single destination is courting issues. It may not have been a souring of relations that exposed this issue, it could have been a collapse in Chinese demand. Either way diversification away from China would seem the most sensible option with a reality check that there will be pain whilst this shift takes place.

True. Over reliance on a single market makes no sense whether China or the UK.

Australia Is On Its Own": China Will Keep 200% Tariffs On Aussie Wines For 4-6 Months

As China piles on the trade pressure, the reality of Australia’s economic place in the world has been laid bare: it is on its own," begins a scathing op-ed by James Laurenceson, director and professor at the Australia-China Relations Institute (UTS) at the University of Technology, Sydney.

He underscores that Australian government leaders need to come clean on the fact that in its worsening trade and diplomatic spat with China there will not be a cavalry of "like-minded democracies" on the way or even so much as on the horizon.

the anglos genocide native Americans, Inuit people, Aboriginals, and brought disease that killed most Maori.

on whatever count, the anglos has zero moral ground to lecture China.

sabotage China's development is the only goal the anglos are only interested while human right and etc are just the excuses.

NZ completely mute on the atrocities that the AUS soldiers commited in Afgan while critisizing China's condemnation on such atrocities. this is beyond disgusting.

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Are you saying all Anglos are bad?

Bit racist aren’t you xingmo?

Certainly the comments were sweeping and generalist, but I think the point being made was there is certainly an element of "double standards" being exhibited. Xing's comment about NZ's silence over the Aussie Special Forces behaviour was quite salient given the context. All in all, politicians (of all hues) should really learn to control themselves in front of the media and on SM especially.

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Past is regretted by Colonialists.
Present is just fine with China

He can't grasp that concept.

Han Chinese into Taiwan - started about 500 years ago and now are 98% of Taiwan's population. Similar fast growth in Xinjiang since 1950.

Surely genocide requires intent.

You must be reading different media: exposes of the NZ SAS and of Australian and US troops in Afghanistan have been in the news for years with every action being investigated. Meanwhile the 1million Uighurs in concentration camps is rarely mentioned and never on the front page. I only learned about it from academic sources and then European newspapers and later from the BBC. The atrocities in Afghanistan are described by the village and the date whereas the treatment of Uighurs is only described by satelite photos of the camps and the drastic increases in chinese govt expenditure on barbed wire and security devices.

Most of us anglos want to see China increase its development so it can lift all its people out of poverty - China has been remarkably successful in lifting hundreds of millions from poverty to a good standard of living but it still has more to do. Anglos want to keep buying the ever more sophisticated Chinese goods and we hope they will buy our exports. The morality of human right issues is separate - except in the minds of the Chinese dictatorship.

Every successful people has some dirt through human history. Before the fall of Qing dynasty, we Chinese ruled places like the Korean Peninsula, and Vietnam etc., rainbows and unicorns didn't do it, many heads were chopped off instead. It is no doubt the British played a crucial role in tearing down the old Chinese empire; a lot of sufferings the Chinese nation experienced during the 20th century can be traced back to the Opium war. However, it was 280 years ago. What the British did in the past should not be used to justify what happens now; otherwise, it means we learned nothing from the past.

China is pure evil.

Xingmowang hitting us with the truth again. One million Uighurs thank you for teaching them about Anglo colonialism. Who would have thought concentration camps in Xinjiang have nothing to do with the CCP?

Australia really should just walk away from complaining too much about the tweet lest China double down because it looks like the Australian government has known about war crimes committed by its troops for quite a while and has been seeking to suppress the news and even prosecute whistleblowers and journalists:

I don't understand why the troops are not instructed in no uncertain terms what the consequences will be if they deliberately kill civilians and prisoners. You are kind of betraying your own country if you do that because that's what the "enemy" want you to do, create martyrs for them and enrage the people.

Australia (and NZ too) should haven't sent their soldiers to Afghanistan in the first place.

Agreed

Armed forces in the Western world aren't specifically instructed against the killing of civilians and prisoners because it's such a basic rule of warfare. It gets blurry when in a guerilla war when identification is difficult between combatants and non coms. Prisoners obviously are sacrosanct. The RAA members who erred should be charged with at least murder. There is anecdotal accounts that even the US Special Forces wouldn't work with some of the Aussie squads

It didn’t feature much until the Boer War which also invented concentration camps. In WW 1 the Kaiser’s troops readily shot innocent civilians in Belgium, under orders. The Belgian atrocities, nasty piece of warfare that implanted the groundwork for following suit for both the Waffen SS, Wehrmact and others during WW2.

I didn't say the rules weren't broken from time to time. I said it was a basic rule that isn't specifically stressed - a bit like people aren't specifically told not to drive on the footpaths because it's so obvious why you shouldn't.
Many (if not most) Armed Forces commit atrocities during warfare, but it should be prosecuted when they're exposed regardless of who commits them.

Obviously some troops need to have a refresher course in this matter. Would be good to explain to them why they shouldn't do this in case they think you're just being soft. In these wars it is counter-productive. It is, after all, not an existential war to the death, more just a police action.

I don't know about that Zachary, Afghanistan has been fighting a war of some kind for probably the last 40 - 50 years. For them it may well be viewed as existential. The problems for Afghanistan have been accentuated by western meddling throughout that entire period

Yes, I was thinking about it more from our point of view. Best to not be there at all or just a very quick operation of no more than two or three months. The longer you stay the more likely you are to lose.

What SM has done was to pay for the protection offered by the United States. He knew the concequence but had no choice.

In the long term there is a high cost for Australia to just going with the flow, in the short term there is a cost to swimming against the stream. Australia is managing its risk and exposurd, so should we.

Might be wrong but think in their own right a few Australian wine producers produce more than NZ’s entire annual output. When I used to travel in the Far East 70/80’s wine, apart from champagne types, didn’t feature much alongside the traditional chinese cuisines. In Hong Kong for instance it was beer and/or scotch. Obviously changed nowadays but if the wine prices are really that cheap, hence dumping accusation, then Aussies will lap it up themselves readily enough?

Australia's wealth has made them arrogant. Pride comes before a fall.

Though I'm sympathetic to the challenges that surely exist in governing 1.4 billion people .. China's obsession with 'saving face' has become a worn out strategy.

We have enough problems here in NZ.

World is not yet quite wake up from being supplied by cheap labour workers money production/supplier from China, this in turn creates.. slowly poisoning dependency. Just 30-50 years ago, world wide nations not so much reliance on China, yet they're all still exist in their nationhood. How many countries in this world? How many of it's citizens? What is their potential resources? - The infiltration of cheap $ into each countries ruling elite is the keys. Hence, we shall always read of such title.. championing to suck up to specific country/affiliated to associate countries etc.. again for $ reasons.

Gareth, is not everyone's cup of tea...

https://www.afr.com/politics/australia-must-get-over-excessive-nervousne...

https://amp.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/apr/13/trump-the-most-ps...

His thinking has never found freedom from the Labor view. But rose as being best intellect Labor could find. Near the end he did let slip some of the human condition.

For contrast see Julie
https://youtu.be/t9FGa-VzgDo

Henry I'm afraid the world has moved on since those rather outdated articles were written - they're not really relevant anymore.

Both New Zealand and Australia are effectively provinces of China.