The growing debate over ‘China policy’ in Australia

By Hong Kong 01

2021.11.16

Recently, the debate over Australia’s policy towards China has been intensifying in Australia.

On the one hand, the current Scott Morrison government has taken a clearer line on issues such as Hong Kong and Sino-US relations, and there seems to be less and less room for manoeuvre. For example, following the opening of a ‘safe haven’ immigration route for Hong Kong people in July last year in response to the Hong Kong National Security Act, Canberra has recently unveiled details of a ‘very low threshold’ for Hong Kong people holding several types of temporary visas to apply for permanent residence visas, and a ‘no cap’ on Hong Kong immigration without changing Australia’s annual cap of 160,000 permanent residents.

On the other hand, in the face of the deterioration of Sino-Australian relations due to such actions by the Morrison government, there are increasing voices in Australia to “find another way out”.

Who is ‘pouring oil on the fire’? Who is “not seeing the light”?
On a practical level, some local governments have started to help their businesses to engage directly with China, despite the current Morrison government’s policy on China. Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan, for example, said over the weekend that he would visit China, South Korea and Japan as soon as the epidemic subsided, starting a ‘reconnection tour’; Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews sent a large business team to Shanghai a few days ago to attend the 4th China International Import Expo (VIE). The Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, sent a large business team to Shanghai a few days ago to attend the 4th China International Import Expo (Victoria had signed a ‘Belt and Road’ cooperation agreement with China in October 2019, which was cancelled by the Australian government for the first time under the new Foreign Arrangements Policy Act).

In terms of public opinion, the ‘China policy’ debate within Australia, which has been heating up in recent months, has also intensified. In September, for example, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said that while China was becoming more assertive and signs of Xi Jinping’s growing power were worrying Australia, the current Australian government was irresponsibly ‘throwing petrol on the fire’ in the relationship.

And then on Wednesday (10 November), Paul Keating, the former prime minister who re-established China-Australia relations in the 1990s after June 4 and who set Australia’s policy towards China for many years to follow, suddenly made a high-profile speech at the National Press Club of Australia questioning Morrison was displeased by his government’s stance on China. Morrison criticised Keating for being “out of line” and “out of touch”, saying that “many Australians think we need to have a good relationship with China and trade with each other, but at the same time we can’t be dictated to”.

After 26 years of high-profile statements, what did Keating say?
The row between the two has sparked much debate in Australia. After all, this was Keating’s first address to the Australian National Press Club in nearly 26 years since he left office as Prime Minister. Keating’s general tenet was that China is Australia’s greatest diplomatic challenge and that Australia is doing a terrible job of meeting it.

Keating argues that China’s rise has been righteous, including bringing its people out of the stigma of semi-colonialism, addressing poverty for 20 per cent of the world’s population, and finding dignity – and Keating believes that essentially what China is seeking from the international community is world recognition of these achievements.

He argues that the post-war order dominated by the United States has provided the environment for China’s rise to power, with Western consumer markets, for example, creating the conditions necessary for China’s 700 million people to escape poverty. And while China has largely abided by the rules of the international order over the past few decades, today it is not trying to usurp it, but to improve it. For although China’s influence on the world has changed beyond recognition, the existing world order does not reflect this change very accurately, for example, China’s voting weight in the IMF and World Bank is only about a third of that of the United States and is still lower than that of Japan. It is ridiculous for China to expect China to play a secondary role in the US-style order when China’s GDP per capita will be more than US$20,000 in ten years’ time, more than twice that of the US.

Keating argues that China has problems such as human rights violations and extreme authoritarianism, but that the ‘China problem’ is too costly for Australia and the West, and that Australia’s policy towards China cannot be determined solely by differences over human rights.

Keating believes that the international geopolitical landscape is now much more complex than it was during the Cold War in the 20th century, and that even if this is not a ‘post-American era’, the influence of the US is not as strong as it was in the last few decades. Europe is talking about ‘strategic autonomy’, and even if the world enters a ‘new Cold War’, the EU will not be involved in it. India and Japan, both part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, are also bound to China in various ways, even India, which is the most aggressive towards China, is bound to China through the SCO, the BRICS and even the Indo-Russian relationship. They do not have the absolute dominance they once had.

So Keating believes that China is too big to be isolated and that Australia must engage with China, not to mention that engaging with China is a way of finding a better political framework for itself.

With regard to Pacific geopolitics, Keating argued on the one hand that Australia should not be drawn into a potential Sino-American conflict in the Taiwan Strait. This is because China’s demand is for unrestricted access to the Mariana Trench and the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean, without affecting Australia’s national interests. And while Australia is a ‘stakeholder in the US order’ and has an alliance obligation to participate if the US is struck militarily, Australia should not be involved if the US initiates a military strike. As for the Taiwan Strait, “Taiwan is not a core interest of Australia. We have no alliance with Taipei and we do not recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state”.

In addition to the Taiwan Strait, Keating also dismissed the idea of a ‘new Cold War’ when he talked about the Pacific geopolitics, questioning Australia’s entry into the Australia-UK-US alliance (AUKUS) because it would transform Australia from a peaceful defence to an aggressive offensive, and because even if it got nuclear submarines, they would not be comparable to those of China. Not to mention the fact that this alliance offended France, a major Pacific power.

Keating’s doubts, Australia’s doubts, the world’s doubts
Keating’s biggest question is what is China’s ultimate goal, or what does Xi Jinping want to do? China says “there is room for China and the United States in the Pacific”, but China also says “one mountain cannot accommodate two tigers”. It is true that the United States is now a flawed and even hypocritical power, but what about China? What would a world order dominated by an “authoritarian China” look like? People don’t know, especially not in the West.

↓↓↓Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd tweeted a criticism of the current Australian Liberal Prime Minister Morrison’s accusations against the Labor Party on the “China issue”. Like many Western countries, the “China issue” has become increasingly central to electoral politics in all countries ↓↓↓

This is what Australians, and indeed many people in many countries, are wondering about. Today, the world, both in China and abroad, is facing a situation where the world it knows is changing and many old perceptions can no longer be explained and adapted to the new environment, so something needs to change.

But when people are confronted with something unfamiliar, such as a ‘world order in which China exerts great influence’, they become worried – after all, fear often comes from the unknown. Even more so when people try to understand these changes in oversimplified terms and even stereotypes, such as “China violates human rights, China is becoming more authoritarian, and the more Chinese influence threatens democracy”.

However, the most effective way to address these fears is to reach out, to understand, to dispel fears by understanding the ‘unknown’. And as Keating emphasised at the conference – when Australia thinks about its policy towards China, it should not just consider human rights differences, but the whole picture – when faced with an issue like ‘China’, which carries a huge price tag, even if one is afraid and worried, one should not allow one’s assessment process to be dictated by a particular issue. You cannot allow your assessment process to be monopolised by a single factor. Isn’t this what the old cautionary tale of ‘one leaf overlooking the other’ means?

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