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Reader riposte: Jakobson's Australia-China paper

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COMMENTS

3 July 2012 08:57

Dennis Argall writes:

Linda Jakobson's analysis and recommendations for Australia-China relations are timely and sound.

The history of the degradation of Australian government approaches to the relationship is disappointing. Recent trends reflect elements that have worked on the relationship for a very long time. I was closely involved as desk officer, section head, branch and division head and as ambassador in Beijing (with some gaps) from 1970 to 1985.

China was for long a difficult negative for much of the foreign affairs establishment. It remained on the outer in a foreign service political career world that tended to be focused on ASEAN countries and a policy style that arose from management of the ASEAN relationship by hunting for things which might be 'ASEAN sensitivities' and building Australian policies, at micro and macro level, to avoid impinging on such assumed sensitivities; this wonderfully provoked many such sensitivities, of course.

While China was outside that strange environment, it was possible to deal with China in a more open way on the issues, presenting our perspectives frankly. It was an approach for which senior Chinese officials expressed appreciation privately in the mid-80s: 'We always know your perspective, even when we don't agree, and we like the fact that you don't make a public fight out of it like the Americans.'

It worked with the Americans, too. In 1980, approaching his US presidential election victory, Ronald Reagan announced that he planned to restore relations with the 'true, free Republic of China on Taiwan'. The Chinese asked us, at official level, to speak to the Americans for them. We said we would not speak to the Americans for China, but we would of course be articulating our own views at the right time. Which we did, with sensible officials in Washington warmly welcoming Australian opinion that helped them to keep American policy going in a sensible direction. It was good to do that with Australian initiative.

In the Washington embassy when the Carter Administration had taken office in 1976, at a time when I was acting minister, we received Canberra's advice that we would like the US to regard us as a source of advice on our region. Excellent. But, so typically, this was followed soon after by a cable from Canberra to say, 'We are thinking about ASEAN policy, what do the Americans think. [Full stop, no thoughts from us experts]'. I confess now to having immediately confected a mirror message in reply, claiming that the State Department was reviewing ASEAN policy, what did Australia have to offer? The general level of dumb was exhibited when, at a lunch for him at the embassy, Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was asked to express views on ASEAN, which he did so more than willingly, at inordinate length as he still tends to do, but concluded: 'By the way, is Australia a member of ASEAN?'

I digress, but to point to broader problems of policy development and management. We may think we are smarter now than 35 years ago, but imagine what they will say 35 years from now about present policy muddling.

China policy drifted, early. Stephen FitzGerald as our first Ambassador to China was hated by the Foreign Affairs establishment as a dangerous young outsider come among Jesuits, his thoughts opposed, his departure welcomed. Whereafter, also during a strange and difficult period in China, darkness fell on China policy-making among officials, though much happened at the top of government after Vietnam occupied Cambodia, China attacked Vietnam and the USSR occupied Afghanistan.

I found on my return to the department from elsewhere in 1980 that the standing departmental briefing of objectives for the China relationship was to encourage China towards positive engagement with international institutions and with the region, just as we had so broadly put it five or seven years earlier. It was something that by 1980 had already happened. I thought it dangerous that we were intensely engaging with China (and the United States, but the China embrace was real and enthusiastic) at the highest political level in what the Chinese would call a 'united front' against Vietnam and the Soviet Union. This, to me, constituted a very narrow and potentially fragile base for the political relationship in both countries. The economic relationship was growing, already 40% of Australia's exports went to North Asia. But in the Canberra world, with its separate trade and foreign affairs departments, Foreign Affairs tended still to ignore the economic and the Trade Department sustained ignorance of and hostility towards broader relations. Despite the combining of the two departments in the late 1980s, I have the impression from outside that we don't have a coherent overview in government.

Before the visit of the then Chinese Vice-Premier Li Xiannian in April 1980, the Fraser Government adopted a large number of recommendations in a cabinet submission which were intended, in the language of the decision, to build a broadly based mutually beneficial relationship valued by any future Chinese government. We also broke through old systems, hostile expectations and absurd rules, such as we should not give the Vice-Premier a visa for many weeks because every Chinese official's visa application required a security check which, had we waited, would of course have revealed that he was nothing less than a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.

In following years, the 20-plus recommendations adopted by cabinet in 1980 saw programs to connect with China in most areas of government such as law, audit, tax and courts. Of enormous importance (now as then) for a country embarking on the construction of an entirely new way of governing and opening its economy were such things as 'profit and loss'. This program to build the relationship was endorsed and added to by the Hawke Government soon after it took office in 1983. When Hawke went to China in 1984, with Ross Garnaut as adviser, a major step was taken to support China's modernisation with the decision that we would help them rehabilitate steel mills. China's first joint venture abroad, several years later, was in the Pilbara.

I think the money thing unbalanced thinking over time, with the importance of supporting China's reform process less visibly embraced, certainly at the political level. Also, though, there is a problem we have in general at the highest political levels: that our leaders do not want to say difficult things to foreign leaders. This in part reflects a lack of sophisticated thinking about strategic and international issues. Too much of our posture is still determined by leaders' feelings for those they deal with. Talking to China about relations with Vietnam, beginning back with that 'united front' entanglement, talking about the human dimensions of our relationship, has been fraught with apprehensions. It has, psychologically, been easier to talk about the money. And easier for the strategic stuff to retreat to where it was in the 1960s: big speeches and unwise military adventures with Americans.

We do not know, nor do the Chinese know, how they will develop their long-standing foreign policy principles and apply them through the era of their great power. We do not know the extent to which China's great power, along with the decaying quality of governance in the West, will see alteration of what the 'state' is in the world generally. My own expectation is that much good could come from the Chinese principles of equality and non-interference. But we cannot influence Chinese policy, any more than we can influence American policy, so long as we simply endorse adventurist and interventionist American policy and say nothing much to the Chinese. The 1974 Barnard-Schlesinger Memorandum, between the then Australian defence minister and the US defense secretary, established a right of strategic consultation between the two governments because we aligned ourselves with US strategic interests by accepting joint defence installations in Australia. The specific consultation process vanished down a secret departmental rabbit hole and the general concept got lost in the alliance's Australian political nonsense and our leaders' love of mateship over succeeding decades and in futile wars.

Jakobson is right to link the management of the US relationship with the China relationship. We can't solve one problem without the other being solved. There remains then a huge drag factor of old Australian thinking and timidity about the alliance. Also, there is a problem of the alliance being so heavily shaped by the defence forces' desires for world's best equipment to be fully interoperable with US forces, at far higher unit cost than the US faces, even when this fantasy posture is increasingly looking broke. Realistically, a good ally should be trying to help the Americans down from an unsustainable posture and pattern of behaviour. Tough love, politically focused, not confined to discussion of the deployment and use of force, the great alliance error of 1914. It can and must be done, the level of liquid in the creek is dropping.

Whatever China does, whatever Chinese do, there is always a streak of racial and anti-communist comment in Australia. Have we not accepted British, American and other white investment for a long time? Get the race factor out and we can deal with the big issues sensibly. To deal with the race issue, leaders have to talk about it openly.

China and other countries in the region deal with enormous issues every day. Australia gets excited about bottom pimples every day, metaphorically and comparatively speaking. Who would know we rank number two on the UNDP's Human Development Index?

Too much public and some political discussion seems still to be driven by colonialist, superior mindsets for which we will pay. We must grow up. 

Photo by Flickr user SpecialKRB.

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