Australia has normalised relations with a China-led future

Last Updated:2018-11-21

Updated Nov 20 2018 at 11:00 PM

The Australia-China relationship is almost back to normal. The speed at
which it has recovered has surprised. It has taken two statesman-like
speeches by the former prime minister and his successor, and the
appointment of a new foreign minister as previously suggested in this
column. The anticipated imminent visit by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to
Beijing will complete the process.
Importantly, restoration of normalcy to the bilateral relationship has not involved Australia
compromising any core interests or principles. Neither has it required obsequiousness nor
quiescence, as we are so often warned it will by the more ideologically disposed commentators.
It has involved little more than a return to the realist and pragmatic diplomacy in managing the
China relationship which prevailed for much of the past half century. Australia lost its way over
the past two years as the intelligence, security, defence establishment took the lead on Australia
China relations.
After nearly two years of downturn in bilateral relations, exemplifified by the failure of the then
Australian foreign minister to visit China during that entire period, former prime minister
Malcolm Turnbull made a signifificant speech on the Australia-China relationship just 10 days
before his ouster. This was a major public event at the University of NSW replete with
symbolism, including the presence of China's ambassador to Australia.
Morrison's speech, though made at a curiously more low-key event at a local Australia-Chinese
community meeting, continued the themes of mutual interest and respect, and the opportunities
for co-operation. It is noteworthy that Morrison's speech, which attracted almost no attention in
Australia, was immediately posted on the Australian Embassy website in Beijing and given
widespread publicity in China. Of late, an unusually deft act of diplomacy.
Ideologically strident statements
Together, these speeches marked the end of the past two years of ideologically strident
statements from Australia about China and underlined Australia's interest in having a
constructive, co-operative relationship.
Following a genuinely positive bilateral meeting between China's Foreign Minister and the new
Australian Foreign Minister, on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting, an invitation
was issued to visit Beijing and resume the foreign and strategic dialogue, returning the
relationship to better order.
At this stage in Australia's history, it reveals the immaturity of our foreign policy discussion that
it is still necessary to state that China is unambiguously of such overwhelming importance to
Australia that to allow the bilateral relationship to fall into the disrepair of the past two years is
not just carelessness but wilful indifference towards Australia's national interests.
Importantly, through the two prime ministerial speeches, and presumably the Foreign Minister's
meetings, Australia has reaffifirmed that China is not a strategic competitor, that we have a wide
range of mutually benefificial interests to advance, that we seek co-operation and not
confrontation, and that in the region and globally there is a big and urgent agenda on which
Australia and China can work together.
All the while we are continuing to stress that we will approach the relationship based on core
principles – rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression – which may at times lead to
disagreements on specifific issues. These disagreements, however, are to be managed
pragmatically. In short, we are seeing a much-welcomed return of diplomacy to the management
of the bilateral relationship with China.
It is to be hoped that we will not again fifind ourselves in such an ideological entanglement as we
did over membership of the China-promoted Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), when
we lost early-mover advantage to have inflfluence inside the body. Or to publicly condemn China's
Pacifific aid program, offending not just China but also Pacifific Island states whose goodwill we
What diplomacy is about
On China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Australia should be saying that it is willing to discuss
all activities with an open mind and evaluate those with which we wish to be associated.
Australia should now join the many BRI forums that attract 60-plus countries and most of the
relevant international organisations, such as the IMF and WIPO.
It is not necessary to reject the BRI virtually out of hand as Australia has done until now, but
rather fifind ways to welcome it but at the same time ensure it is not inimical to our interests. That
is what diplomacy is about. At that same time, standing apart from these developments, as we
have seen over again, will not prevent them gathering strength internationally.
In effect, BRI has gone well beyond being a vehicle to recycle China's abundant foreign exchange
reserves and provide a vent for its excess infrastructure capacity, to become an emerging and
signifificant new part of the international architecture. That the Victorian government wishes to
be on the inside of such a body is not surprising. It is also what can be expected to happen when
the federal government creates a policy vacuum through being unable to keep up with changing
With the restoration of normal relations with China, it is now unlikely that the Australian
government will join the vacuous but potentially dangerous US policy shift towards China, as set
out in Vice-President Pence's speech last month, from engagement with China to strategic
Australia faces a different reality when dealing with China than does the United States,
notwithstanding Australia and the US are close allies. Australia has no option but to work co
operatively, constructively and creatively with China. Australia needs to do this in a world in
which the Old Order has gone, and in which China is both a principal cause of the order having
changed and a principal architect of a newly emerging one. Returning our relationship with
China to a more normal footing is good start.
Geoff Raby is chairman of Geoff Raby and Associates and a former ambassador to China.
AFR Contributor