Commentary | 10 August 2018

What Turnbull's China reset really means

Originally published in Australian Financial Review.

Originally published in Australian Financial Review.

So, Australia and China are friends again?

That might be the impression left after Malcolm Turnbull's speech this week at the University of New South Wales about the bilateral relationship, and the subsequent positive response out of Beijing.

Outwardly, it seemed like an impressive diplomatic pas de deux. Turnbull's speech in Sydney was attended by the Chinese Ambassador. After its delivery, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing issued a statement welcoming its contents and the ruling Communist Party's self-trained attack dog, The Global Times, showered the speech with praise.

If Julie Bishop, the Foreign Minister, travels to Beijing in coming weeks for what would be her first trip in at least two years, that will cement the trend, of both countries willing to re-engage at the top in the kind of dialogue that existed before relations went south.

Predictably, the headline writers labelled the speech a "reset" in relations. But that is only half right. In truth, the speech is best understood as a reset on a reset, which is why it is wise to temper expectations about ties getting overly cosy in the immediate future.

Turnbull went out of his way on Tuesday to accentuate the positive potential of close China relations, in science, energy and education, including the invaluable people-to-people ties built through young Chinese spending their formative years in Australian universities.

Beijing's critics in Australia have expressed deep concern about aspects of research co-operation, in particular the way in which the Chinese military-industrial complex can exploit our open system to get hold of dual use technologies.

The Torch program, one of the most prominent partnerships, announced by Turnbull in Beijing in 2016, "will make UNSW in effect a client university of China in its science and technology areas", according to Clive Hamilton, a critic of the party's intrusions into Australia.

The federal government is studying how to regulate such research partnerships but Turnbull's warm and forceful endorsement certainly puts a powerful thumb on the scale in favour of continuing collaboration.

Only a few months ago, Sydney University's Michael Spence was complaining about the "Sinophobic blatherings" coming out of Canberra.

Along with his fellow vice-chancellors having a near nervous breakdown about losing revenues from fee-paying Chinese students, he should be thrilled by the speech, even if he was forced to listen to it on a rival campus.

There was also, in the sections bemoaning protectionism, a sympathetic nod to China's trade problems with Donald Trump's America, although the government dares not criticise the US President by name, for fear of retribution.

Coincidentally, however, the Turnbull speech coincided with a lengthy cover story in The Monthly magazine by the Prime Minister's former adviser, John Garnaut. The article was headlined – you guessed it – "The China Reset".

Garnaut's article was an expert's exposition on how Australia, and subsequently, many other countries, are re-equipping their political systems to deal with the unique features of China's overseas influence operations and foreign policy more generally.

A few years ago, the arcana of the party's United Front Work Department, which is charged with influence work, was confined the obscure seminars and journals of the China-watching academy. The advocacy of the likes of Garnaut, to Beijing's discomfort and annoyance, has helped push the issue into the open.

Turnbull's reset, in other words, if that is what it is, has been built on the foundation of a new and hard won understanding of, and clarity about, how China's ruling party really works.

Not surprisingly, in a speech primed to accentuate the positive, you had to look hard to find an acknowledgement of that change, but it was there.

Turnbull talked about pursuing a relationship based on "mutual respect and understanding", words which were once the code used by China to warn off foreigners from interfering in its internal affairs. Now, the roles have been reversed.

Likewise, Turnbull talked about other principles which undergird Australia's messy pushback against the CCP, about a nation's right to independent decision making and how international rules apply to "large and small countries" alike.

The hard truth is that in the future, Australia will have to deal with a different China from the good old days of Bob Hawke and John Howard, let alone Gough Whitlam. China is richer, more powerful and assertive in the region and across the world, and there's no going back.

Australia isn't the only country to notice we are in a new era. Numerous nations are in the process of renegotiating a new understanding with China, about where their interests coincide, and where they don't.

The art will be to construct a relationship that can accommodate the inevitable tensions down the track, whatever stripe of government is in office in Australia. In that respect, the Turnbull speech is just one step in a long march into a difficult future.