by Michael Danby
Beneath the partisan silliness of the recent media stir about our relationship with China lies the reality that Australia faces some very difficult choices about our China ties, and will continue to face them whoever is in power. For the first time in Australia as an independent nation, our most important trading partner is not a friendly democracy like Britain, the US or Japan, but an authoritarian regime whose government processes are secretive and whose intentions are unclear. Furthermore, China is not only becoming the economic giant of our region, but also a political and military giant. An election of a more accommodating Ma government, in Taiwan has for the moment quietened potential flashpoints like the Taiwan Straits. Moreover, it was Kevin Rudd who pointed to the expanded Chinese military build up leading to criticism of his judgement that Australia needed to deploy submarines. I have never heard a squeak from the opposition on this issue of the Chinese military before the Fitzgibbon saga. These facts are unlikely to change any time soon. Some, like Will Hutton in his recent book The Writing on the Wall, say that China is headed for a terrible crash – maybe as a result of the current financial crisis. My guess is that China will come out of this crisis fairly soon and resume its rapid economic growth.
How does Australia deal with a country whose political system we dislike but whose stability and continued growth is vital to our own prosperity? Certainly not by throwing around childish epithets about “Manchurian candidates”. It is true there appear to have been minor mistakes with transparency during the visits to Australia of Chinese Intelligence and Propaganda chiefs. More importantly Australia is well served by a Prime Minister who has good connections in Beijing, who literally speaks their language and significantly understands how the Chinese government and society work, and who can act as a bridge between China and the leadership of the western world. Certainly President Barack Obama has already realised what an asset he has in Kevin Rudd in his own dealings with China. So let’s be clear: Australia needs China – as a market for our raw material exports, and also as our most important source of future investment capital, given the absence of international bank credit and at least medium-term difficulties in both the US and Japan. As China develops, so our economic relationship will deepen, not only in commodity exports but also areas like education and tourism which are already big earners for Australia.
No one in the Australian parliament has been a bigger critic of the Chinese labour camps (Laogai), the abuse of internet, HIV/AIDs activists and national minorities than I have but our criticism needs to be based on fact not what appears to be political opportunism.
There is a big difference, however, between being China’s partner, and even being China’s friend, on the one hand, and being China’s satellite, on the other. Australia’s interests do not coincide with China’s in many ways. Australia is part of the western alliance, and as the Prime Minister emphasises, wants a vital continued US engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia sees the promotion of human rights and democracy as an essential part of our foreign policy, which will inevitably lead us into disagreement with China over issues like North Korean refugees or the oppressive regime in Burma. Incidents like the Chinese crackdown in Tibet, Chinese threats against Taiwan, the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong or the jailing of dissidents in China itself will always cause friction. Preserving good relations with China, while standing up for our principles and speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves, will be an ever-present tension in our relationship.
The Chinese leadership is not stupid, and it understands that its relationships with western democracies cannot be free of friction, nor can they be a one-way street. Australia needs China, but China also needs Australia, as its closest and most reliable supplier of commodities vital for its continued development, and as a country with considerable influence in the US, Japan and the ASEAN bloc. China respects countries which deal with them honestly and constructively. Serious observers know Beijing respects Kevin Rudd. Indeed Beijing is a little wary of his familiarity with their mentality and political system. It was Prime Minister Rudd who caused an international stir prior to the Beijing Olympics by raising the issue of Tibet while he was in China. Australia’s interests are not well served by the kind of unsubtle stirring of anti-China sentiment that we have seen over the past week. On the other hand, we gain no respect by taking a vow of silence and avoiding offending China at all costs.
It’s curious that the Liberal Party, having been notably obsequious towards China while in office, are now trying to criticise Kevin Rudd for being too close to Beijing. Australia’s interests are served by a hard-headed, pragmatic approach, which combines co-operation on practical matters with adherence to our national interest and to our democratic principles. The Chinese understand this perfectly well. Rudd has the right balance in expressing our national interest towards China. If the Opposition wants to criticise that relationship they ought to identify a single issue on which they seriously disagree with Australia-China policy. Otherwise they risk looking like desperate short term opportunists.
Michael Danby is a Labor Party member of the Australian House of Representatives and is Chair of the Australian Parliament’s Sub-Committee on Foreign Affairs. As Chair of the Australian Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, he was the host of the 9th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights & Refugees.
16 April, 2009