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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