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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 20:18 | SYDNEY
Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 20:18 | SYDNEY

China: The 'uneasiness of the unknown'

Soon after I began delving into the study of Australia-China relations upon moving to Sydney 14 months ago, a senior Australian official told me: 'Our top leaders find China too hard; just too hard.'

It isn't just the lack of English-speaking counterparts in China, nor the cultural differences or that understanding China requires so much effort. It's not even the distaste for their political system, he said. 'It's all of this, but above all it's an uneasiness of the unknown. We Australians know the United States, but we haven't even started to know China.'

In a new Lowy Institute Policy Brief about the underdeveloped political relations between Canberra and Beijing, I argue that Australians have invested a lot of time and resources in understanding and working with the complexities of the American political system. Now is the time to invest in China know-how.

China is indeed demanding. But as an outsider I cannot see Australia's political elites having any other choice than to do their utmost to understand how Chinese senior officials make decisions, how Chinese elites think, and above all how best to have an impact on Chinese decisions and perceptions.

Depending on how you calculate it, Australia tops the list or is among the top three countries in the world which are economically most dependent on China. When problems arise bilaterally, as they inevitably do, familiarity and a degree of trust are essential to resolve the problem. Equally important, China is no longer merely an economic power. How can Australia pursue its stated national objective of contributing to a stable and peaceful region if it does not reach out to China to discuss regional challenges?

At present, senior Australian political leaders discuss regional issues when they happen to meet overseas. Prime Minister Gillard spent two days in Beijing in April 2011 on her first visit in over a decade. She had 45 minutes of discussion with President Hu Jintao.

In the Policy Brief, I recommend establishing an annual, intensive exchange study program for Australian and Chinese mid-career political leaders focusing on politics and strategic thinking. The vice governors  and deputy party secretaries of today will be the ones who rise to the pinnacle of power in China in 2022. It would unquestionably be in Australia's interest that one of China's most influential leaders in the next decade has an intimate knowledge of Australia and personal relationships within the Australian political establishment.

In his book about Australia and China, David Uren describes Bob Hawke asking then-Premier of China Hu Yaobang in 1985 who would be an influential leader in twenty years time. Hawke then sent Ross Garnaut, Australia's Ambassador in Beijing, to far-off Guizhou to extend an invitation to the man Hu Yaobang recommended, Hu Jintao, then a Party Secretary in this impoverished province.

Subsequently, Hu came to Australia as part of the Senior Visitors Program in 1986. More than fifteen years later he became head of the Communist Party of China and President of the People's Republic of China in 2002/03.

According to a Chinese interlocutor who was part of the delegation traveling with Hu when he paid an official visit to Canberra in 2003 and addressed the Australian parliament, Hu referred repeatedly to his fortnight spent in Australia seventeen years earlier. Australian officials who met Hu during his 2003 visit recall that Hu displayed an unusual level of knowledge about Australia's resource industry and enthusiasm for the potential of establishing robust Chinese and Australian economic ties.

Hawke laid a stone in the foundation of the flourishing Australia-China economic ties which exist today. Now Australia needs a leader (and the initiative) to lay a few stones to cement the basis for meaningful political ties in the next decade. It's a far more complex challenge today than it was thirty years ago.

Photo by Flickr user joachimtraun.

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