Last month, Professor Bates Gill, a China expert at Macquarie University in Sydney, published an article in the Australian Financial Review entitled “Bounded Engagement: Charting a New Era in Australia-China Relations”.
Professor Gill’s central argument is that despite the necessity of continued engagement and cooperation, Australia needs to redefine the boundaries of the Australia-China relationship based on vigilance and pragmatism.
His nuanced and balanced read of Australia-China relations rightly calls Australians to action. The Australian government and the Australian public needs a deeper rethink on its approach to China. Indeed, with the federal election upcoming on May 18, the next Australian government, whatever its political persuasion, will inherit a complex set of China-related challenges.
The truth is, for too long, Australian elites have turned a blind eye to the challenges posed by China’s rise. Many of our political, business, and community leaders have developed cozy and profitable relations with the Chinese Communist Party-state. For too long, our elites have benefited from China’s economic rise without properly preparing the Australian public for the long-term challenges posed by an increasingly powerful authoritarian the Middle Kingdom.
There is no doubt that Australia needs to engage China on trade, investment, connectivity, security, and a raft of regional and international issues. But there is an urgent need to rethink our current modus operandi and recalibrate Australia’s approach to China. Of course, this process has been underway for some time. The bipartisan support for foreign interference laws and the decision to exclude Huawei and ZTE from the building of Australia’s 5G network highlight Australian concerns about China’s influence. However, I would argue that a deeper rethink is needed if we are to prepare Australia for a future in our corner of the world with an increasingly powerful China with vastly different political institutions and values.
What are these challenges? And why do they matter so much to average Australians? To be sure, China is not at the root of all of Australia’s international challenges, nor is China an enemy. The dynamics are far more complex: The rise of China fundamentally affects Australians in a myriad of both positive and negative ways. In short, it affects our place in the world.
Goodbye to a benign geostrategic environment
Since the Second World War, Australia has relied on a benign geostrategic environment policed by a powerful U.S. This has changed. The shifting of relative power away from the U.S. toward China is set to exacerbate the strategic competition between the two giants. While an agreement is now on the horizon for the trade war between the two, the deeper competition for economic, political, technological, military, and ideological supremacy will play out in the decades ahead.
This competition has profound consequences for regional stability and security. Importantly, even if this competition does not boil over into overt hostility, for example over Taiwan or the South China Sea, Australia will be a battlefield for the contest for influence between U.S. and China. This is already happening, but we should be ready for a sharp escalation in the years ahead and prepare accordingly.
Challenging the international liberal order
The rise of China also challenges the international liberal order and international rules and norms that are important to Australian values and interests. Let us be honest: Australia is a relatively small power on the international stage. We depend on international rules and norms to restrain and shape the behavior of bigger powers; we depend on these rules for stability and predictability in the behavior of other states. However, China is a serious challenger to the current international liberal order with its increasingly illiberal values and practices, both internally and externally.
Until quite recently, many leaders in liberal democracies thought that China was going to change in a liberal direction with more freedoms for its citizens. However, no one seriously thinks that is the case anymore. Under Xi Jinping, China has embraced some elements of its Maoist past, with an emphasis on social control, political orthodoxy, and supremacy of the Party over all else. New technology, such as facial recognition, AI, and big data has given the party-state immensely powerful tools to monitor and control China’s citizens. Moreover, the room for public debate and expression has shrunk, with netizens, academics, and journalists increasingly fearful of stepping over the Party’s “red line.”
Instead of giving more freedom to its citizens, the Chinese party-state has sought to influence and guide every aspect of Chinese lives, including their political beliefs, personal identities, consumption patterns, and religious practices. China under Xi has gone backward in protecting the human rights and dignity of its people, while at the same time becoming a leading economic, military, and technological power.
The China Dream, then, is not a dream of dignity for individuals, but a dream of a stable, powerful, and proud state. In this dream, it is not wrong for individuals to be trampled by the glorious and ever-forward marching of the party-state.
Indeed, for many, including many on the margins of Chinese society, the China Dream has become a vivid nightmare. For example, in its quest for control, the party-state has adopted extreme measures in places like Xinjiang, where it has interned an estimated 1 million Uyghurs in “political re-education” camps.
This gross abuse of human rights is widely reported by international media, but so far most countries have stayed silent or have only voiced token “concerns.” After all, why should anyone care about the Uyghurs when trade and investment are on the line?
Internationally, China is also seeking to change the rules of the game. Sure, today’s China under Xi is no longer the revolutionary China under Mao, which sought to export revolution. But nevertheless, China is selectively trying to change the institutions, processes, and rules underpinning the post-World War II order to suit its growing ambitions.
Prominently, China’s aggressive claims over nearly all of the South China Sea is not in accordance with international law, but Beijing does not seem to care. In fact, it has made its illegal claims a point of nationalist pride. For a country that prides itself on its long written history, China’s ambitious claims in the South China Sea lacks historical support. Moreover, for a country so intensely conscious of its past humiliations and grievances, China is now seeking to impose its will on other weaker powers. There is some irony in this.
Of course, China is not the only one challenging international rules and norms. Many others are doing precisely that. In fact, the U.S. under Trump’s “America First” approach to its international relations is also challenging the liberal values of free trade and multilateralism.
But I would argue that China’s challenge to the contemporary international order is deeper and more enduring. China’s large population, economic gravity, growing influence, and ambitions, along with the thoroughly authoritarian-leaning of its rulers, makes it all the more important for Australians to comprehend China’s challenges to the established international order.
If China was only an enemy, then the solution would be simple — confrontation. The complexity arises because it does not seek to overturn the system like a revisionist power, such as Nazi Germany. But it is a part of the order; it has been a big beneficiary of the order; and even defends aspects of the order, such as parts of the international trading system that has allowed China to flourish economically.
The rough road ahead
Today, there is an urgent need to recognize that China seeks to change the current international order — to turn it from a liberal order into an illiberal order, and to make it safe for its authoritarian rulers. However, there is no viable way of dealing with China that does not involve a heavy element of engagement.
How should Australians respond to China’s challenges? I would be lying if I said to you that I have the answer, but some thoughts come to mind.
First, there is a need to sustain a robust and informed debate on Australia’s relations with China. The debate needs to go beyond the elite circle of Canberra or the ivory towers of Australian universities, and include a wide range of voices, including the voices of Australia’s Chinese communities. These communities are often on the forefront of China’s political activities in Australia, both legitimate as well as these efforts that we in the liberal society may deem unacceptable.
In this national debate, we need to be mindful of not separating people into black and white camps. We need to approach this debate with respect and goodwill, including for points of views that we do not agree with. From Bob Carr to Clive Hamilton, and all voices in between these two, they all have a place in this debate. We are all in this together.
Second, the Australian government needs to be willing to call China out when it behaves in a way that is detrimental to Australian values and interests. There is no need for megaphone diplomacy, but we do need clear, consistent, and firm articulation of Australian views, including views that Beijing may not like. Standing up for Australian values, such as respect for human rights and international law, is not costless. Beijing has some economic leverages to punish Australia. But these decisions, as tough as they are sometimes, tell the world who we are as a people and as a nation.
But Australia is far from alone. During the last year, I have spoken to policymakers and experts from many places, including the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, India, and Europe. There is no doubt that many of the issues that confront Australia’s relationship with China are shared by others, albeit mediated by their own unique circumstances. Australia needs to coordinate better with other liberal democracies on its approach to China. Indeed, there is both weight and safety in numbers.
Third, the best defense against the eroding influence of authoritarianism is to strengthen our own democratic institutions, processes, and values. For many, the party state’s political activities are profoundly worrying. But to over-react could be just as harmful. We need to strike a balance between affirming Australia’s commitment to civil liberties while responding appropriately to the growing influence of the Chinese party-state to safeguard our democracy.
For the Chinese-Australian community, this means speaking out in the defense of our rights and our communities, including against Beijing when it acts outside the bounds of acceptability on Australian soil. But it also means defending the rights of all Australians regardless of ethnicity and heritage, or political or religious affiliations.
In addition, we need to affirm that Beijing has no claim on our emotional affinity and political allegiance. As much as Beijing claims to speak for all “overseas Chinese,” and as much as Beijing tries to control the medium and narratives of the Chinese-language media ecosystem in both Australia and around the world, it can never truly represent us. We can speak for ourselves.
Finally, if Australia is to engage with China effectively, then it needs to prioritize understanding the Chinese world in all its diversity. There needs to be strong recognition that the PRC is only a part of the Chinese world and not the whole. Indeed, the Chinese world includes communities from all across the world with a multitude of identities. We need to learn and engage with the cultures, societies, and histories of the Chinese world instead of simply accepting blindly the narratives of the Chinese party-state. The Chinese party-state has been very successful in conflating itself with the idea of “China,” and equally successful in conflating the idea of “China” with the “Chinese world.” This needs to be challenged.
Toward the end of this essay, I feel a tinge of sadness: Many in my family, in both Australia and in China, upon reading this essay would think that I am “anti-China,” that I am engaged in a self-indulgent form of activism, and that I do not understand China. I feel misunderstood, but I also know that this is because they have been exposed to the party-state’s propaganda for most of their lives. Even for those who live in Australia, they live in a Chinese-language media environment that largely aligns with the views of Beijing.
In many ways, Australia’s China debate has acquired a personal dimension for me as I try to untangle the knots of my own identities, memories, and aspirations. What does it mean to be Chinese Australian in modern day Australia? How do we relate to our Chinese-ness and Australian-ness? How do we relate to a China that for many of us holds great personal significance and yet is a source of some of Australia’s most profound international challenges? I trust many readers have reflected on similar questions.