Australia is uneasily perched on the frontier of a new world order—based in Beijingby Kerry Brown / May 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
I started learning Mandarin in earnest a quarter of a century ago, just after moving to Melbourne. Recognised as the world’s best preserved Victorian city, it also has a vibrant, long-established Chinatown. My wanderings there during lunch breaks whetted my appetite. In the evenings, I memorised characters and learned the pinyin system used to transliterate Chinese characters. For a novice, Melbourne was a Mandarin learner’s paradise.
But travelling on the Great Ocean Road to Adelaide on holiday exposed a less positive side of the story. A monument halfway along this route records the murder of Chinese prospectors who came to find their fortune in the newly opened goldfields of 19th-century Victoria. On my arrival at the nearest town, one inhabitant ranted to me about how the country was being overtaken by “Asians from the north.” The real story of the land that used to call itself the lucky country is not one of unalloyed cordial contentment with China and the Chinese.
The ambiguity in Australian attitudes to Asia in general, and China in particular, has long bubbled under the surface of Australian politics. More progressive politicians such as Paul Keating in the 1990s, and even arguably Gough Whitlam back in the 1970s, have seen openness to Asia as a way to move on from the colonial past. But there has always been resistance from Australian traditionalists too.
Tensions, however, are now boiling over. Just before Christmas a crucial by-election was held in Bennelong in New South Wales. A Liberal MP was defending a seat on which the Coalition government’s tiny majority depended. The campaign was dominated by a leaked letter of mysterious provenance, urging the local Chinese community to vote against the “anti-Chinese” government in Canberra. The letter was taken as conveying the views of the Beijing authorities to the Chinese diaspora. The perception of outside interference produced a backlash, and the Liberal candidate was able to cling on despite a strong swing to the Australian Labor Party.
The reason why the topic of China is now electric in Australian politics is not hard to fathom. Geography and economics are forcing Australia to begin a disruptive and painful adjustment that all western nations may eventually have to make—to a world order with Beijing at its centre. Whatever happens in global geopolitics, Australia cannot afford to anguish about whether it is Asian or not. China became its largest trading partner in 2010. Australia is becoming an Asian economy whether it likes it or not.
But nor can the country escape from the shadow of a single momentous and disruptive fact: for the first time in its history, its greatest economic ally is a country that holds profoundly different values, and in which the Communist Party holds a monopoly on power. No wonder Australians, who sit at the frontier of engagement with China, are nervous. But people in other democracies should pay heed to these dilemmas, for they may not escape them for long. And despite its more distant location, they could arise in Brexit Britain earlier than most, because an isolated country outside its own regional club will feel particular pressure to hold the new superpower close. For Britain, Australia is the canary in the Chinese-built coal mine.
The founder of the Chinese Communist regime, Mao Zedong, called Australia the “lonely continent.” But these days any loneliness is being alleviated by unprecedented levels of attention from its massive northern neighbour. Australia hosts the second-largest cohort of Chinese students in the world, next only to the United States, and well over a million Chinese tourists a year, their number having just overtaken the number of visitors from New Zealand. There are also ever-extending bonds between ethnically Chinese communities and their motherland. Since 2006 the proportion of the Australian population describing themselves as ethnic Chinese had doubled from 660,000 to 1.2m. Across every area of life in Australia, China’s effect can be felt.
It is a reality in the lives of Australians as never before. Parts of Sydney could almost be in China, albeit with more benign weather and clean air. Excellent Chinese restaurants, shops and Mandarin signage mean that many Chinese tourists and immigrants can function perfectly well without English in a way that would be quite unimaginable in the west in all but tiny enclaves in London, Manchester or Vancouver. The Chinese are among the main foreign buyers of residential property, while Chinese companies have made significant purchases across the country. And the fees of all those Chinese students are a major source of funding of local universities.
The question of how to handle all this is complicated by the fact that Australia has not had to give foreign policy much thought until now. Governments of all stripes have been consistently pragmatic, and sought to secure Australia’s interests by nurturing the sole indispensable relationship with the US. This relationship has been conducted with a soothing simplicity. Unlike the UK, there isn’t the alternative of cross-channel engagement to worry about, and unlike the Brits, Australians fought alongside Americans in Vietnam. They have participated in every war the US has been involved with since.
Critics would sometimes ask if Australia’s foreign policy was run not from Canberra but Washington DC, and yet the alliance always had a basis in rational self-interest. Australia could put so many of its eggs in one basket because of the happy fact that not only was the US the dominant security partner, it was also the key economic one. Life was straightforward.
In the 21st century, this harmonic alignment has rapidly unravelled. Why? Fundamentally, because a country that once figured as remote, introspective, and a place of exotic difference and mystery is looming ever-larger. China’s economic imprint in Australia is no longer remote, nor remotely exotic; it is impossible to miss. And its motives are no longer regarded as quaint mysteries, but rather as deliberately opaque.
Read: Isabel Hilton on Xi Jinping’s global ambitions
More recently, of course, Australia, like the rest of the traditional American bloc, is having to wrestle with a capricious US president whose America First doctrine implies the US has no eternal allies, only eternal interests. Australian nerves were frayed by Donald Trump’s bruising first telephone conversation with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in January last year, which was cut short after half the allocated time. (The transcript of the call was leaked to the Washington Post—the conversation ended with Trump describing it as “the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous.”) Australia the stalwart, ever-willing partner has been left questioning what was once unquestionable—the security guarantee from their partner across the Pacific.
Were China politically similar to Australia, then embracing Beijing as an alternative to Trump’s Washington might fast become the new consensual common sense. But in one of the world’s oldest democracies, an authoritarian, one-party China that is becoming increasingly dictatorial under Xi Jinping is inescapably controversial. And, tapping into that ancient ambivalence towards China, there is growing Australian suspicion that their country is experiencing a purposeful, deliberate attempt to influence, change and take over its institutions and remould its culture and society.
If its old American ally is disengaged and unpredictable, China—unmistakably—has strategic designs on Australia, and its role within a region that Beijing increasingly wishes to dominate. The burning question is what Australia’s counter-narrative might be. The country cannot be passive, and ride in the tailwinds of China as the inevitable engagement intensifies. Instead, Australia must craft its own story about what it wants this engagement to achieve—urgently and on its own.
Every day Australia has to wrestle with the calculation of how to balance the benefits that come from China alongside the potential downsides. It has to work out what precisely the Chinese “plan” towards it might be, and how it can thwart, modify or co-operate with that plan.
Under Xi, the task has got simpler in one respect: China is no longer hiding its ambitions. There is a clearly stated grand national mission, the China Dream, in which the country is restored to the position of greatness it enjoyed in pre-modern history. At the very least, the world knows now that China wants respect. The issue is what form this takes, and for Australians, what that respect might cost when it comes to diktats from Beijing about Taiwan, human rights, and actions in the South and East China Seas, not to mention wider norms about a rules-based order and the spread of democracy. China is already using economic pressure points to challenge all of this.
The frailty of Australia’s own ideas about itself thicken the plot. An Italian friend who visited me when I was living in Sydney had a strong reaction to the Museum of Australian History in Canberra. “The place is chaotic,” they said, “you come to it thinking, wow, this is a country with a real identity crisis.” Oceanic geography and colonial history have long pulled it in different directions. Since the 1950s there have been around 60 different government enquiries focusing on the country’s relations with its own region.
The last of these, and perhaps the most comprehensive, was “Australia in the Asian Century,” issued under Julia Gillard’s Labor government in 2013. Drawing on soundings from experts and business, it concluded that Australians had to start learning more relevant regional languages—including those spoken in China—and scale back their love of learning European tongues (it was said more people in Sydney were learning Latin than Mandarin at the time).
The arrival of the right-wing Abbott government later the same year saw this paper removed from official websites as part of a wider policy swerve. The difficult lessons, it seems, are never allowed to stand unchallenged for long enough to sink in. With Australia incapable of deciding whether or not it is content to be an Asian nation, the discussion of China is clouded with confusion. But while identity is an abstraction, China’s concrete impact is, increasingly, tangible, intense and evolving much faster than Australia’s anguished sense of itself.
Listen: Kerry Brown on Prospect’s podcast
Not that the Chinese government has done anything to help Australia make the painful adjustment. When Xi came on a state visit in 2014, he lectured parliament in Canberra about the need to view relations with China with more boldness and imagination. But the massed security presence around his movements conveyed an imperious, pushy attitude bound to go down badly in a place where politicians are watched closely for signs of arrogance. Nor has China’s image been helped by (possibly scare) stories in the Australian press that the Chinese government runs espionage cells amongst the students in Australian universities.
China’s defensive, haughty response to media criticisms heightens the unease. Shrill demands for Chinese university lecturers in Australia to not violate the official line on the South China Sea, Taiwan, or Tibet, really get people’s backs up. Bossy commands by the Chinese embassy in Canberra that local organisers should bar Xinjiang speakers from cultural events inevitably leave Australians perceiving a scary autocratic state. And there, for a minority at least, these fears can nestle next to nasty, lingering strands of the old racial prejudice.
So the difficulties are very real, but no more so than the opportunities. Australia has enjoyed a quarter of a century of positive growth, unmatched among developed countries. It only managed to sustain this during the crisis of 2008 because it could rely on China to buy its commodities. These days, Chinese growth, while more modest, remains a huge fillip as traditional sources of commerce with Europe and the US decline. Between 2000 and 2015, China’s share of Australia’s exports soared from 6 to 28 per cent. That share is now double that with Japan, the main partner till 2009, and quadruple that with the US.
The kind of money that China has to invest is not easy to sniff at for a country that has yet to construct a high-speed rail link between its political capital in Canberra and its commercial one in Sydney. China, after all, has built a staggering 24,000 kilometres of rail that can go over 300 kilometres an hour in the last decade. Installing another such project in Australia would be a doddle for them were it not for Australia’s own political worries. But for now, the politics continue to matter: three times in the last five years, Canberra has blocked substantial investments from Chinese companies—in broadband, land and electricity infrastructure—for security reasons.
Time will tell whether Canberra will be able to sustain such objections in future. But for the moment, it is not overt ill-will from Beijing that limits how close the two countries can get, but Australian perceptions of China. In one of his rare moments of lucidity on international affairs, former Prime Minister Abbott was caught summing up the Australian attitude to China to Angela Merkel in two words: “‘fear’ and ‘greed.’” Here was the real voice of a confused Australian elite caught between apprehension and opportunity, letting slip the inner turmoil.
Long before the Brexit vote, David Cameron and George Osborne were eager to open Britain up to Chinese investment. A meeting with the Dalai Lama near the start of their administration had put Chinese relations into deep freeze for three years, but once Britain had served its time on the naughty step, the floodgates opened. There is now barely a city in the UK that hasn’t signed some sort of investment deal with Chinese companies, while the centrepiece of the new UK-China relations is the extortionate Hinkley Point nuclear energy deal. When Theresa May came to power, she was determined to rip it up, but soon chickened out—mindful, no doubt, of the diplomatic price that would be paid for falling out with big Chinese investors. Indeed, May’s government is eager to increase Chinese trade—international trade minister Liam Fox has made the country one of his top, post-Brexit, priorities.
The experience Down Under gives the UK a useful glimpse of the real nature of Chinese power that it, too, will soon have to grapple with. Some Brits looking on at Australia will see China’s approach as one driven by grievance and resentment. But does China really believe Australia is a weakened target, a place to be controlled, cajoled, bullied, in ways that were never possible before? And is this the grim future Britain, too, will eventually have to submit to?
There is an alternative, less despairing—and more convincing—interpretation that puts more stress on Australia’s clumsy misunderstandings. Even if China is driven by pure self-interest, it wants to see an Australia run according to rule of law, with good governance, and stable democracy. It respects these things, as long as they are outside its borders—because it likes investing in such a predictable and reliable environment. Its own vast domestic challenges, despite the external bravado, remain; to solve them it needs good relations with the outside world, and particularly its own broader region. For Xi’s China, a less rule-bound, and less predictable Australia would be bad.
Seen this way, China is not a new diplomatic overlord, but an opportunist, almost a parasite. It might exploit some of the opportunities it sees in Australia, but it is working within well set boundaries. At the end of the day, it likes Australia just the way it is. It would ultimately follow the same kind of approach towards the UK. The upshot—for both Britain and Australia—is to adopt a pragmatic approach in response, guided not by fear but by clear-headed self-interest. So how to get into the right mindset? One obvious pre-requisite is principled leadership. Nothing has done more to fuel Australian anxieties than the case of Sam Dastyari, a Labor MP who was accused last year of taking payments from Beijing in return for articulating Chinese-favoured positions on issues like the South China Sea and openness to Chinese investment. He was forced to resign, but the fear of a deep network of Chinese money and lobbying is profound.
It is probably only the politician at the very top of the pile who stands any chance of putting a consistent and sensible frame around the China debate. But in the last decade, the position of Australian prime ministers has veered from the almost comic self-assurance of Mandarin speaker Kevin Rudd, who indulged in extra-curricular attempts of trying to tell Chinese leaders how to run their country, to the quietly pragmatic posture of Julia Gillard, and the repressed distrust of Abbott.
Under Turnbull, things should be more rosy: his Goldman Sachs days gave him exposure at least to Chinese business. But instead, he has talked ominously of “foreign interference” and, in turn, has been accused by the Chinese government of “poisoning” relations. None of these prime ministers has been able to set out a credible, consistent national narrative of Australia as an Asian country, a precondition for a sensible settling of relations with China.
For the UK, there is one overpowering lesson in Australia’s plight: ensure you know the tale that you want to tell about yourself before you dally with a country which will already be clear about the story that they have for you. That might be easier said than done for another country which, in the wake of Brexit, faces some serious questions of its own about identity. But it has to be worth trying. Because it is surely better to write some of the coming episode of Chinese engagement for yourself, rather than leave Beijing to direct the entire script.