Wresting China diplomacy back off the securicrats

Last Updated:2019-04-04

The reality of Australiaʼs relations with China is that it is asymmetrical. Australia
needs China more than it needs us. To say this in Canberra has marked one out as a
supine “panda hugger”. All the bureaucratic incentives have been on the side of
getting tough with China. The cumulative effect of which has been Chinaʼs official
downgrading of relations, severely restricted access, few high-level visits, and some
commercial disruption without any obvious gains for this pain. In short, it has been a
self-defeating approach.
To say the relationship is asymmetrical does not mean that Australia is without assets
and influence with China. It simply reflects the fact not only of the depth of our
economic dependency, but that Australiaʼs broader foreign policy and security
interests are increasingly shaped by Chinaʼs behaviour. Australia needs to be able to,
as far as it can, seek to influence Chinaʼs behaviour by deploying our strengths and
assets skilfully. Instead, in recent years, the Australian government has successfully
marginalised Australia in China. It is neither in Australiaʼs nor Chinaʼs interests that
this continues.
Australiaʼs economic dependency on China – greater than almost any other country –
derives from the unique complementarities between the two economies. Australia
had this with Japan and to a lesser extent other rapidly industrialising economies in
north-east Asia. The difference with China is its size.
Deep structural reasons
Much hand wringing goes on in government, the media and the conference circuit
about how Australia should not have all its “eggs in one basket”. Hence the wishful
thinking, for example, that somehow – usually if the Australian government were only
to put enough resources into it – India would provide an alternative vent for
Australiaʼs exports and reduce our dependency on China. Years of effort along thispath, starting with the Rudd government, have not moved the dial. A decade later,
Australia is more dependent on China than ever. This is because of deep structural
reasons, not lack of foresight or effort.
The fact that the China Foundation has been established and funded and not
something similar on India – despite the governmentʼs major report on relations with
India last year – might finally be recognition that the rebalance with India approach
has largely failed to deliver.
The dilemma, of course, is that China is not like us. It does not at the official level
share our values about human rights, rule of law, media freedom and freedom of
religion and of association. In its international relations it often behaves like a bully.
None of this would, and did not, matter much when China was poor and
The world has now changed but Australian governments have been irresponsibly
slow to catch on.
Yet a new foundation with a $44 million budget, as welcome as that may be, is not
going to be able to make up for the neglect of the relationship overnight no matter
how able its leadership under Warwick Smith may be. Its main significance for now, at
least, is that it symbolises a change in direction in government thinking about
managing Australiaʼs increasingly complex and challenging relationship with China. In
foreign policy symbols, like words, can be powerful.
The announcement of the appointment of Graham Fletcher as Australiaʼs next
ambassador to China at the same time as the foundationʼs announcement is also an
important symbol about changing the management of the relationship and will be
understood as such by China. The present ambassadorʼs wish to leave the post and
the likelihood of Fletcherʼs appointment had been an open secret within Canberra for
some time. The announcement could have been made earlier but has been linked to
the foundation. This is well judged to increase the impact of both.
Good judgment
Minister Marise Paine has also shown good judgment in appointing a professional
career diplomat and not following the self-indulgent pattern of her predecessor
under whom the number of political appointments increased, including in sensitive
posts such as Tokyo where professionals are usually sent.
It is as if Fletcher has been preparing for this appointment for all his three decades in
DAFT, which in effect he has. In addition to speaking excellent standard Chinese –
the first since Stephen Fitzgerald was appointed Australiaʼs first ambassador to
China in 1973 – he has served in Beijing on three occasions. Helpfully, he also served
as deputy head of mission in Washington which gives both perspective on the USʼ
approach to its relationship with China and credibility. His predecessor had also
served at a high level in our embassy in Washington. He is tough-minded and
taciturn and enjoys the diplomatic combat with China which is necessary to excel
and not merely survive in the role.
The biggest challenge for any ambassador in China, however, is less the Chinese but
more the management of Canberra and attitudes in Australia more broadly. The
tendency in Australia is to swing from embrace to estrangement and back again. The
ambassador needs to keep everyone focused on what Australiaʼs interests are and
how best they can be advanced in the context of an asymmetrical relationship with
the resources at hand.
Tough issues
Fletcher takes up his appointment when the doldrum in the relationship is stretching
beyond its second year and when China is showing little appetite to restore relations
to where they had been.
The list of tough issues he will need to handle is long and getting longer, coal and
Huawei being the most recent additions. His task in some respects, however, is
easier than it would be for others. He has already overseen the preparation of the
briefing for ministers on all the issues in the bilateral relationship.
It is to be hoped that China recognises both the change in substance in the
management of the relationship and the significant symbolism of these two
announcements and takes steps itself to respond in constructive ways.
Geoff Raby is an independent non-executive director of Yancoal Pty Ltd.