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Reader riposte: Australia-China grand bargain

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COMMENTS

25 July 2011 14:14

Robert Ayson, Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, Wellington, writes:

Graeme Dobell's draft for an Australia-China pact recognises the gap in Australia's growing stable of bilateral concords: it does not have one with its leading trade partner, with the world's main rising power, and with the country with whom its future relations are going to intensify in the deepest and often most challenging ways. But I have three questions.

First, are we getting the cart of the pact before the horse of the deeper understanding which is required? Formal agreements, as Hedley Bull used to argue, are the culmination and reflection of what is going on in deeper politics: they are symbols of what lies beneath. So we had better be sure that the pact is not before its time, in which case it would be offering the hope of reciprocal mutual trust when the foundations are still a bit creaky.

Second, how much insulation against future scrapes will such a pact be? Some of the potential difficulties which Graeme mentions are functions of domestic politics which can rise up without giving political figures much warning. Can we be sure the pact would be an asset in these circumstances?

Third, does such a pact really tell us that a grand bargain between China and Australia is in play? Grand bargains are normally struck by grand powers who have something grand to offer one another. In exchange for the reassurance that Australia might feel, and the status it might enjoy, what does China get here? I detect a certain asymmetry in the air.

If there is a grand bargain to be had between China and Australia is it to be found in the drafting language of the rather gentle bilateral pact Graeme has provided us? Or does it reside in what China might want Australia to do with some of its other relationships if it really does want a bilateral free trade agreement? Now that might be a real, if rather scary, bargain to contemplate.

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