A testing friendship

The pressure is intensifying for Australia to rebuild its standing with Beijing ... which Canberra will find increasingly difficult to resist.

Rowan Callick (Journalist, author, advisory board member of La Trobe Asia)
First published in The La Trobe Asia Brief Issue 2 on 1 July, 2019.

On his last visit to Australia, in November 2014, China’s President Xi Jinping noted in Canberra that he would soon – through his imminent trip to Tasmania – be able to boast he had been to every state, enabling him to “gain a full understanding” of the country.

“I don’t know whether I can get a certificate for that,” he added in a rare jest.

China’s leaders feel they’ve got a pretty full measure of Australia – its capacities and its limits.

The reverse is far from true, despite China having become Australia’s largest trading partner almost a dozen years ago. Australia’s political, business and other leaders continue to struggle even to pronounce Chinese names, not least that of Xi himself. No significant figure in public or corporate life, except former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, has lived, worked or studied there.

Australia is in turn disproportionately important to China, economically. Our population is the world’s 55th largest, our economy the 13th, but we are China’s 7th biggest trading partner.

Thanks to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s adroitness and enthusiasm, Australia moved swiftly to recognise the People’s Republic in 1972, ahead of most of the West.

For most of the period since then, Australia has been viewed as an especially agreeable and non-troubling partner.

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser led a condolence debate when Mao Zedong died, assuring that “Australians will understand and share the sorrow felt in China at his passing... The renascent China I saw is his monument.”

Such sentiments continued – except for rare instances such as Rudd’s 2008 speech at Peking University that questioned the human rights accorded to Tibetans in the spirit of a zhengyou (real friend) of China – through to another Liberal prime minister, Tony Abbott. He lauded Xi at the 2014 state banquet for his “historic, historic” speech, declaring that his country would be “fully democratic by 2050.”

Xi – the most powerful, the most ideological and the most communist party-focused of China’s leaders since Mao – had actually told parliament of his routine goal “to turn China into a modern socialist country that is prosperous, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious by the middle of the century.”

At least he had avoided the bizarre claims of predecessor Hu Jintao, who told parliament in 2003... “Back in the 1420s, the expeditionary fleets of China’s Ming dynasty reached Australia’s shores. For centuries, the Chinese sailed across vast seas and settled down in what they called Southern Land. They brought Chinese culture to this land and lived with the local people...”

PRC leaders have valued Australia as a reliable supplier of a wide range of quality resources, as a predictable American security ally but with a friendly twist – an increasingly ready educator of and pleasant and safe tourism destination for middle class Chinese, and a country where Chinese businesses can learn how to operate in a Western environment, and where Chinese migrants are welcome. Indeed, probably after New Zealand, Australia has become home to more such migrants, relative to its population, than any country in the world.

Australia has negotiated the most sophisticated of all Beijing’s free trade agreements, after Liberal prime minister John Howard agreed to break Western ranks to accept China as a ‘market economy’. It became under Labor prime minister Julia Gillard a comprehensive strategic partner of Beijing.

Chinese leaders felt relaxed about what appeared a non- threatening relationship. A ‘human rights dialogue’ could contain any unwelcome angst on that front. The People’s Liberation Army was encouraged to develop an especially close connection with the Australian Defence Force.

Leading Chinese academic Zhu Feng said in 2013 that Australia’s global role as a member of “the liberal world order” – which Professor Zhu viewed as a benign influence on China – positioned it as “a most effective tool by which Beijing can win friendships, and retain the gains we want.”

Rapidly, however, that prospect soured for Beijing.

Why? What changed?

‘China’ didn’t change its view substantially; most Chinese people retain a positive perspective on Australia and Australians.

But Xi rapidly and surprisingly centralised and personalised China’s governance. In his first five-year term as communist general secretary – his core role – from 2012 to 2017, he purged and purified the party. His view of government is clear, “East, west, south, north, and the middle, the party leads everything.” His Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era was enshrined in both party and state constitutions. Xi’s is decidedly a ‘new era’.

The old Deng Xiaoping era of China ‘biding its time and hiding its strength’ was discarded. His second term’s focus is on Chinese global leadership, hinged off his Belt and Road Initiative, his renovation of the PLA, and his backing for Chinese tech giants including Tencent, Alibaba and Huawei to pioneer new global standards as part of the weaponizing of China’s economic heft. The Chinese diaspora, in Australia no less than elsewhere, is expected to play a loyal supportive role.

Those many Western leaders, including in Australia, who had believed that modernisation equals liberalisation or Westernisation, were startled by this seemingly swift materialisation of China as a devoutly communist, authoritarian polity.

Their shock has been the greater because they had formerly failed to notice or acknowledge that the Party had remained there all along as a shadow accompanying all daily life – if less ambitious and omnivorous than it has now become again under Xi.

This almost wilful failure to ‘read’ China had been an especially common trope in the US, whose elite, as James Mann related in his prescient 2007 book The China Fantasy, fostered “an elaborate set of illusions about China, centred on the belief that commerce will lead inevitably to political change and democracy.”

Zhu Feng has described China as a “lonely rising power” – and reflecting that, Beijing has in turn developed one test after another of loyalty or friendship, for each of its neighbours, hinting that its economic beneficence may be tried beyond endurance if too many such tests are failed.

Australia has resisted legislating an extradition treaty with China, it has failed to sign the Belt and Road MOU, it has ruled Huawei out of its 5G network and passed foreign interference laws. Thus China has appeared to become more demanding, while Australia is accused – especially by prominent Australian friends of Beijing – of becoming wilfully uncooperative, even suspicious, or perhaps worse, of being subservient to a despised American President.

Despite the gaping hole of Australian investment in China that gravely limits our corporate understanding, the relationship otherwise remains ‘thick’ – it has much of the ballast that Gareth Evans when foreign minister lamented was lacking between Australia and Indonesia. There are for instance 39 Australian Studies centres at Chinese universities, more than in the rest of the world put together. Many involved, including in China, quietly hope the political climate will become less frenetic.

But for now, the pressure is intensifying for Australia to rebuild its standing with Beijing by passing those political tests – which Canberra will find increasingly difficult to resist unless friends and allies choose to reassert liberal democratic values.

Photo: Xi Jinping receives a ceremonial welcome during a visit to Government House, Canberra, 17 November 2014, (David Foote/AUSPIC).

Find an expert

Search our experts database.