Learning to Live with China

Author: Stephen FitzGerald

Whatever interpretation one chooses to put on China’s international posture, whether you think it will be more friend and partner or more hostile and overbearing, the question for us is the same: how well is the government managing our interests? The issues we’ve had on China over the past year point to major problems – on our side. The policy narrative is missing, there appears to be no long-term strategy, the quality of dialogue is demonstrably deficient, and there are failings in the strategic management of relations.

Kevin Rudd & Hu Jintao (Photo: Bloomberg)

In the more than a year since the Prime Minister first set out his thinking on long-term regional architecture, in which China clearly would be central, there has been no extended explanation of long-term China policy. This is the more surprising given the issues that have arisen over that time. And each has left questions over policy and relationship-management.

The Stern Hu case, for example. Added to a background of speculative, facile and Sinophobic discussion, we’ve had: a foreign minister who’s not allowed to be his own foreign minister, especially on China; a prime minister who takes what appears to be sole ownership of China policy; government over-reaction to Opposition and media over-excitement; no narrative for explaining to the public what was happening; a failure to stay on top of the discussion; and above all no effective dialogue through which this problem could be privately explored. That’s serious.

Or take the Defence White Paper. On the basis of several great leaps in logic, this Paper imagines a China security threat, which Kevin Rudd has not sought publicly to repudiate, leaving questions not only about its dubious conclusion but about strategic policy-making. Why, on the interpretation of a matter as weighty as China in our long-term future, does the government simply make a pass at it in a defence White Paper, without any supporting analysis of historical, political and other imperatives that might affect China’s future international posture? Why did the White Paper not heed the objections of ONA and the DIO? Why is the hand of DFAT barely visible? Does the Prime Minister mean, then, to have foreign policy driven by defence policy?

Or take the Chinalco Rio bid, where the government, as Peter Drysdale and Christopher Findlay pointed out as early as last September, has no arrangements in place for ‘routine consultation between Australian and Chinese authorities … to facilitate scrutiny of competition, corporate governance, and financial transparency issues’. The question here is: how can you conduct a major relationship of this bearing on Australia without such dialogue?

It is puzzling also that the government hasn’t prompted other kinds of dialogue with China, like the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue, or new track two dialogues on specific issues. Does it believe it is managing so well it doesn’t need this kind of dialogue – which abounds, for example, in US relations with China?

Whole of government management, dysfunctional in other policy areas, is similarly dysfunctional on China, illustrated by one potentially strategic area of relations – our involvement in China’s governance reform. Funded by Australian aid, this program has engaged with some of the inner workings of the Chinese government on reforms critical to China’s future, and to ours. But coordination of government participation in Canberra has been absent, and with the program about to end there’s no policy or mechanism to bring its gains and potential into a strategic China framework, because there is no apparent strategic framework.

With a one-man China policy it was perhaps inevitable that we would at some point reach the kind of imbroglio we have with China now.

But the task of maintaining and building the most effective relationship is a multi-dimensional, multi-mind task. And finding effective strategies to persuade China that officially inspired anti-democratic demonstrations by Chinese students over Tibet, or the harassment of the Melbourne Film Festival, are not just unacceptable to us, but also not in its interests, requires the application of all the minds and resources the government can bring to bear. China policy needs urgent attention, which ought to entail, for a start: a foreign policy or China white paper, not circumscribed by prior assumptions about China’s future international posture; a major China statement from the Prime Minister on strategy, and an ongoing narrative engagement with the public; fixing the quality and effectiveness of government-to-government dialogue, and creating an equivalent to the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue; a strengthened DFAT with an over-arching role in policy development, advice, and coordination; giving the Foreign Minister a leading and initiating role on China; politicians and senior officials going ‘back to school’ on China; funding for a China Studies Centre equivalent to the $25 million the Howard government put up for the US Studies Centre; and a high-powered body to advise and assist the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister on China policy.

This is the summary of a longer paper available here [pdf].

Dr Stephen FitzGerald was Australia’s first Ambassador to China, after the Whitlam Government established diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1972.


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  • It appears that the Prime Minister’s tight control and micro managing approach to his government is not only affecting foreign policy but also other areas of governance to an adverse effect.
    In the foreign affairs area, it is not only reflected in the relations with China, but also in the likes of the appointment of ambassador to Germany etc. His personal likeness overruled the advice of the foreign minister and the department.
    In the climate change area, his approach of no effective negotiations and engagement with the opposition as well as the independent senators severely damaged the government’s credibility in its climate change policies.
    In the national broadband network area, his like of grandeur technology has led to the most silly government policy involving tens of billions for a project that did not have a business case study.
    For the stimulus packages as responses to what he called a tsunami, cash handouts were done not only once but twice with the second done even knowing that a significant part of the first handouts had been saved rather than spent to stimulate the economy.
    What about the building education revolution spending on schools to build a hall or library for each and every school? Was that done properly?
    While not all the above were completely the fault of the Prime Minister, his tight control of the government and micromanaging approach obviously played a significant part. Everywhere bears the hallmark of the one man micromanaging and tight control.
    Micromanaging and tight control may be good for political spins, but it is rarely good for a government to develop good policies and apply good governance.
    Perhaps it is time for Rudd to consider the effects of his approach and empower his ministers and the bureaucrats to do their work so his government can be more effective in all the main areas of governance including foreign policies and relations with important partners.

  • Mobo Gao

    I read Stephen FitzGerald’s contribution with great interest. I must say I agree with almost all he says.

    Can I add one thing though. One would assume that with a PM who speaks fluent Mandarin Australia posesses an advantage over her relationship with China. I think the Mandarin speaking PM so far has been proved to be the problem. This can be outlined by the following points:

    1. The fact that he can speak Mandarin gives him a false sense of assuance that he knows China better. This may be one of the reasons for what FizGerald calls “one man China policy”. But the most important point is that the fact that one can speak the Chinese official language does not mean one understands China. Apparently the PM did a thesis on Wei Jingsheng and was a student of “Simon Leys”. If the PM’s understanding of China remains at the level of anti-communist Cold War narrative then he is horribly out of date. China has changed dramatically since the 1980s and is changing fast. Wei Jingsheng is as relevent or as irrelevant to the majority of the Chinese as Ned Kelly is to most Australians

    2. The fact that the PM can speak Mandarin has become a political football. If Australia gets on well with China the PM is being accsued of China’s Mandarin and if Australia does not get on well with China the PM is being accused of not using his skills for the benefit of Australia. I felt immediately sympathetic when I heard the news that the PM declined to sit next to Mm Fu Ying the former PRC ambassador to Australia. What do you expect him to do?

    3. One constantly hears claim that the PM is a friend of China. What a political red herring! History shows that no leader of a government deals with other governments on a personal friend basis, with the exception of Anglo-Saxon countries, occasionally perhaps. This kind of friendliness is based more on ideological or political culture affinity between the two countries than on a personal ability to speak a language.

    Finally, a piece of information that may be relevant to the issue. Mao Zedong liked to deal with anti-communist politicians like Nixon because Mao knew only the anti-communist warrior like Nixon could afford to deal with a “communsit” country without having his political life slauighterd domestically.