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China and the Great Asia Project I: Peering into China\'s future

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COMMENTS

17 November 2010 15:30

All sides of Australian politics agree on the central significance China now has in the Great Asia Project which has obsessed Canberra for decades. The Canberra consensus on engaging China has been remarkably uniform as it has evolved since diplomatic recognition in 1972.

China, always an important part of the Project, once had to share equal billing with Southeast Asia, while conceding top spot to Japan. The Project has reordered that hierarchy reasonably smoothly as the facts have changed. One dimension of this is that China is no longer just a 'foreign affairs' issue; the China boom is reaching into the workings of Australian domestic policy.

The strain is starting to show, though, as Canberra peers ahead and tries to divine China's future and the role Australia may play. Kevin Rudd hopes that China will change its habits, but knows the country too well to dare make too many predictions about what China will do.

China will win a lot of gold medals in the geo–political and geo–economic Games of the Asian Century. The hard bit is working out which events China will totally dominate. The US has long been the gold medallist in the pool, for instance, but maybe we are seeing China move its water game from being pacific to the Pacific.

All this means The Kevin's enduring contribution to public life may yet be how he explains China to Australia — and attempts to talk to China about its own interests.

Certainly, Labor wants the new Foreign Minister to be so forward looking that he has nary a moment for a rearward glance. The Gillard era approach is not to delete the Rudd Government from Labor history, just to ignore it. The 'Moving Forward' slogan may be discredited, but the sentiment is alive.

The trauma of the election and the travails of minority government assist in the no–rear–vision–talkies approach, because so much energy has to be devoted to the immediate here–and–now of just keeping the government bicycle upright.

Thus, Gillard is happy for Rudd to talk about China and that is one topic he is supremely well qualified for. His musings on China as Prime Minister and now as Foreign Minister are valuable resources.

The positive Rudd perspective on China was offered in his Beijing speech at the start of his leadership, while the gloomier view stood out in one of the last big foreign policy efforts near the end of his prime ministership.

As Foreign Minister, he has offered another weighty instalment with his Third Way speech.

Much of the commentary has been about how Rudd was arguing for Australia to find a new Third Way to deal with China. Piers Ackerman channelled Howard and Downer to pour scorn on Rudd for reinventing the wheel that is already steering Australia's China policy.

Read Rudd’s speech, however, and the Third Way message of new thinking is directed at China as much as it is to other powers:

Australia believes that in the wider debate about China's future role in the world, we also need to get beyond the crude concepts of being fan hua and qin hua — of being either anti–China or pro–China. The truth is, these are outdated, Cold War concepts. They also tend to place foreigners only in either of two categories: opponents or sycophants. Or as if there are only two ways for the world to deal with China – conflict or kow-tow. Both China and the world need a different way of thinking about each other. Not a zero–sum game. But instead a third way.

Writing from Washington at the weekend, the Financial Review's Tony Walker said (subscription) that China is on the way to becoming a domestic US issue as the country debates the costs and benefits of engagement with a huge mercantilist power. The argument can't be merely about whether China is shifting from being an evolutionary to a revolutionary power, Walker wrote, because the US–China relationship has become so extensive and multifaceted that it may be unmanageable in a conventional sense:

What is indisputable is that the world is now in the hands ultimately of the G2 — the US and China. In these circumstances, the question becomes how does a middle power such as Australia, with close ties to competing poles in an increasingly bipolar world, balance its interests, and what sort of defence posture makes prudent sense'

A great question. And as usual with beaut questions, the answers are slow to arrive. 

China certainly seems to be offering us all a future that looks distinctly different to what has gone before. As a former Beijing correspondent, Walker questioned whether China's foreign policy has outgrown or cast aside Deng Xiaoping's admonition to ;hide one's abilities and bide one's time.'

Not too much chance of China hiding these days. And Beijing seems to have decided its time has come.

On Beijing's sense of entitlement, note an important bit of fact verification by Greg Sheridan. A well–aimed question nails down an important point. Various bits of the Chinese system have been dancing around the issue of whether Beijing has actually claimed the South China Sea as a core interest — thus, on par with Tibet and Taiwan. Sheridan got the best possible confirmation from a non–Chinese source, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Clinton said that the core interest claim was made to her by the Chinese State Councillor responsible for foreign policy, Dai Bingguo. With that confirmation came this Clinton quote:

When the Chinese first told us at a meeting of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue that they view the South China Sea as a core interest, I immediately responded and said we don't agree with that.

Kevin Rudd will have his work cut out in Beijing getting them to consider the benefits of the Third Way.

Photo by Flickr user nils, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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