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China: The Howard formula

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COMMENTS

28 August 2009 14:04

Beijing has decided to punish the Rudd Government for economic and strategic slights: Defence White Paper retribution has mixed with anger at the workings of the Australian market and is further inflamed by anything Canberra says about separatist tensions within China. Beijing has quickly delivered a series of diplomatic cuts to drive home its displeasure. Chinese ministerial visits have been called off, Australian ministers going to China are snubbed, and the Chinese media froths about Australia’s crimes.

In my column last month on the arrest of Stern Hu, I outlined the diplomatic blow-torch China applied to the new Howard Government in 1996. That stoush provides a framework for sketching China’s thinking this time and what Beijing might want from Rudd to call an end to the torment.

The one big difference between the 1996 campaign and this one is that Beijing is not able or not willing to pull too hard on the economic lever. In '96, China's ban on ministerial contacts with Australia was linked to a freeze on Australian business. Every Australian company executive heading to Beijing suddenly found appointments being cancelled, doors closed and deals declined. The screams of corporate pain in '96 were important in convincing Howard that he was indeed hearing a concerted message from China's leaders.

The way Howard negotiated an end to China's campaign offers a model that will be useful to Rudd. Howard negotiated a ceasefire at the APEC summit at the end of 1996. Rudd will have two chances later this year to set the terms of a diplomatic ceasefire with Hu Jintao: the East Asia Summit in Thailand in October and the APEC summit in Singapore in November.

The script Howard used in his meeting with Jiang Zemin in 1996 will be a useful reference point for Rudd. Howard said his bilateral meeting with Jiang 'removed any peripheral doubts that may have emerged' and had established a framework to 'overcome, absorb, handle, massage — however you want to describe it — those differences as time goes by.'

My memory of that news conference in Manila on 24 November, 1996, was of Howard's discipline and focus in embracing an utterly pragmatic formula to deal with China. Essentially, the description he gave of how Australia would manage differences with China became the pattern for the rest of the Howard years.

After the diplomatic pain inflicted by Beijing, there was no talk from Howard of any special relationship, but instead clear respect for China's power and an effort to achieve some respect in return. 'Mutual respect' became one of Howard's touchstone phrases on China.

Howard kept his tacit promise to Jiang. The following year Howard visited Beijing and announced that Australia would seek a bilateral dialogue with China on human rights. Canberra withdrew its support for the annual UN human rights resolution criticising China.

The acknowledgement of China's power got another run in 1997 at the British handover of Hong Kong. Australia broke with the US and Britain, which boycotted the opening of Hong Kong's new Provisional Legislature created by China. Alexander Downer joined the rest of Asia in attending the full ceremony.

Howard stuck closely to the terms of his Manila agreement throughout the rest of his term. He explicitly talked about Beijing's prerogatives as a growing power and said Australia would concentrate on its interests, not its differences, with China. For China, Howard became a reliable mini-Nixon: a conservative realist they could do business with.

The problem for Rudd is how much of this formula he can bear to use. For example, he will have to follow Howard's example on Tibet. That means the Dalai Lama visits Australia but doesn't get to meet the Prime Minister. And in seeking his vision of an Asia Pacific community, Rudd is going to have to pay even greater heed to China's wishes, and not be seen as merely pushing a line on behalf of the US.

The really tough call is how much verbal kow-towing is called for this time. Given the triumphalism in China about its international pre-eminence, what will Australia's Prime Minister have to offer up to 'absorb, handle, massage' the concerted campaign of pain Beijing is sending towards The Kevin?

Photo by Flickr user Brett Tully, used under a Creative Commons license.

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