Commentary | 30 August 2014

China Australia relationship needs to broaden from trade

China-Australia relationship needs to broaden from trade

James Brown

The Saturday Paper

30 August 2014

Please click here for the online text.

  • James Brown

China-Australia relationship needs to broaden from trade

James Brown

The Saturday Paper

30 August 2014

Please click here for the online text.

  • James Brown

Executive Summary

For a relationship presumed to be in good repair, remarkable efforts have been expended in the past fortnight to patch the tear caused by the member for Fairfax’s frank and free assessment of Chinese national character.

The treasurer, Joe Hockey, described Clive Palmer’s comments as “hugely damaging”. Trade Minister Andrew Robb intimated that such loose words could jeopardise negotiations towards a China–Australia free trade agreement. China’s Australian representative, ambassador Ma Zhaoxu, reassured that despite Palmer’s rampant rascality, “The healthy and stable development of China–Australia relations is in the fundamental interests of the two countries and peoples, and cannot be overturned by any individual.”

Yet such protestations of the strength of the China–Australia relationship are necessary, precisely because of its inherent weaknesses. Far from being strong, the bridge between Australia and China is surprisingly brittle.

A large part of the problem is how much of the relationship is built purely on trade. Few Australians could have by now escaped the statistics regularly rolled out by leaders to illustrate the deep economic enmeshment between Australia and China. Two-way trade topped $150 billion last year. Of course, that China is purchasing our goods and services and investing in Australia is something to be grateful for. But a relationship so remarkably dependent on trade is necessarily all too dependent on transactions.

A business-first focus doesn’t preclude the development of cultural and emotional ties, but it doesn’t necessarily thicken them in lasting ways, either.

A transactional approach characterises much of the interaction between our two countries. Take the government’s vaunted Australia Week in China initiative of April this year. More than 700 Australians representing 564 organisations joined Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Robb and other parliamentarians for a four-day industry networking frenzy. Memorandums of understanding were signed, introductions made, the base hopefully laid for a free trade deal the government must conclude by year’s end. And with that done, briefcases were snapped shut and the entourage dutifully boarded planes back south. A business-first focus doesn’t preclude the development of cultural and emotional ties, but it doesn’t necessarily thicken them in lasting ways, either. It remains to be seen how many of Australia’s 700 delegates will form lasting friendships in China, or return there at all.

Chinese view of Australia

On several occasions, China’s English language newspaper has editorialised on the limits of the China–Australia relationship, and emphasised that business transactions matter most. In response to Palmer’s recent comments, Global Times snipped: “Australia is a remote business partner, and a place where the Chinese can take a trip and learn some English.” In an editorial in December, dismissing Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s criticisms of Beijing’s air defence identification zone, Global Times concluded: “For many Chinese people, Australia is a good place for business, travel and higher education. That’s about it.” While the Australia–China Council trumpets that 10 per cent of Chinese students educated abroad come to Australia, it has less to say on how many of those same students ever return or forge lasting links with Australians. Rather than a cultural immersion, getting a degree from an Australian university can be just another transaction in a globalised economy.

“China is a big country, inhabited by many Chinese,” Charles de Gaulle once bemoaned. But when Australians think of China, most think not of the Chinese people but of the Chinese government. Australia boosted its political linkages with China last year, establishing a yearly leaders’ meeting, as well as strategic dialogues between foreign and trade ministers. Australia and China’s military chiefs have held strategic defence dialogues for more than 15 years; the only such one China conducts with any country other than Pakistan. These are significant diplomatic achievements and worthy forums for high-level interaction. But as my colleague, respected China expert Linda Jakobson, has warned, such high-level interactions can be hollow without further institutional and cultural ties.

There are bureaucratic limitations to formal government interactions anyway – Australia is but one of many countries clamouring for time with Chinese officials, and there are some indications that Chinese officials are increasingly focused on internal dealings. Chinese diplomats reportedly are more concerned now to remain close to power in Beijing rather than venturing outwards to take postings overseas. And informal government-to-government relations can be somewhat strained, too. It is difficult for Australian officials in China to strike up informal personal relationships with their China counterparts lest they come under suspicion from security services.

Though we know the relationship is critically important for Australia, at the same time our leaders worry about its depth and durability. That’s why we fret about every interaction and over-react to every negative turn.

Australian ignorance about China

But a far bigger problem is that for everyday Australians the Chinese government is faceless, and something to be concerned about. While 87 per cent of Australians surveyed for the Lowy Institute’s annual poll this year admire US president Barack Obama, only 17 per cent say the same for Chinese president Xi Jinping. Two-thirds of Australians have no idea who he is. For everyday Australians, the Chinese government is something of an amorphous mass. There are no Australian commercial TV correspondents based in Beijing and hardly any public Chinese personalities based in Australia.

Unsurprisingly, many Australians feel anxious about the Chinese government’s intentions as the state’s political and military capability grows. Astoundingly, while Australians rate China as one of our closest friends in Asia, at least half believe the country will become a military threat to Australia some time in the next 20 years.

There is no shortage of cultural interaction between our two countries, but it is all too elite. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sponsors Australian symphony orchestras and ballet troupes to tour Shanghai and Chengdu; Chinese artists are hot property in Australian galleries and exhibitions. But the casual yet important people-to-people interactions forged through sport, movies and music are largely lacking. This is partly because of inchoate Chinese soft power. The United States has Hollywood, India has Bollywood, Korea has “Gangnam Style”. Even dank and long-ago declined Britain has One Direction, Harry Potter and Colin Firth. But despite a slowly emerging Chinese film industry, helped along by James Packer’s half-billion-dollar investment, Australians still have few opportunities to engage with Chinese popular culture. Few opportunities, that is, beyond a Chinese TV dating show called If You Are the One, which unhelpfully paints Chinese debutantes as cold, calculating and avaricious. Beyond the Olympics, there are few major sporting contests featuring Australian and Chinese teams. The comfortable familiarity of popular culture, so important in our other international relationships, is virtually non-existent in our relationship with China.

The final complication in broadening Australia’s relationship with China beyond trade is the management of tensions with America. Our relationship with the US is deep and emotional, based on conjoined values and shared struggles. Americans love competition and are naturally prone to view international relationships as a zero-sum game: if Australia is improving its relationship with China, then our relationship with the US must be declining. But that is not the case – a strengthening China relationship need not supplant our kinship with America. I cannot see in my lifetime, for example, Australia ever entering into a military alliance with China. And as Abbott noted in a March speech to the Asia Society, China’s lack of political reform will remain an ongoing obstacle to a fully fledged relationship.

But Australia’s leaders should not be so anxious about the trajectory of the Sino–Australia relationship, and could afford to be less distressed whenever an ill wind buffets our ties. Like the Chinese, we would be best to take a long-term view rather than rushing to react to every misstep or minor threat to relations. Australia and China’s interests will intersect for decades to come. And time will allow some of the hollowness of the Sino–Australian people-to-people relationship to be filled, too. Chinese golfers and tennis stars are competing with Australians now, other Chinese athletes and teams will become more prolific on the screens in Australian living rooms. China may navigate the tricky path of having its own Hollywood, alongside a state-controlled media regime. We might yet see China’s answer to Miley Cyrus. Australian TV networks will be drawn to spend more time covering issues in Beijing. And, who knows, the next time Xi Jinping visits Australia, more than one-third of us might even recognise him.