Why China’s rise exposes Australian vulnerabilities

Why China’s rise exposes Australian vulnerabilities


Why China’s rise exposes Australian vulnerabilities

Scott Morrison and Li Keqiang shake hands in front of the flags of both nations at the ASEAN summit in November 2019

Australian PM Scott Morrison and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met this week

Australia and China continue to trade accusations and placations in an escalating row with far-reaching consequences. But amid criticisms of Beijing, Australia has long failed to properly scrutinise itself, writes China-Australia expert Kerry Brown.

Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), reportedly called Australia the “lonely continent”. These days, though, going from the recent ups and downs in the bilateral relationship, Australians feel anything but lonely.

China supplies to Australia a huge and ever-increasing number of tourists, overseas students, and, since 2010, has been the nation’s biggest trading partner.

Its investments have also increased exponentially – but posed increasingly probing problems because of fears by Canberra about security and interference.

How did we get here?

In the past decade, Australia has changed national leader five times. For all their differences, prime ministers from Mandarin speaker Kevin Rudd to today’s Scott Morrison have had one thing in common – they have all found that dealing with China is never simple.

This is not through lack of trying to find a model that works. Mr Rudd tried the “true friends speak truth to each other”. That fell apart on the shoal of accusations by Beijing that he was actually too close to the US, allowing marine troops to rotate in the northern port of Darwin.

Julia Gillard tried expanding the canvas to aim for an Asia-wide approach. But the simple fact that China loomed so large in Asia made that hard to implement, and Tony Abbott quickly phased out this approach when he was elected in 2013.

Julia Gillard walks by assembled Chinese soldiers during a welcome ceremony on an official visit to Beijing in 2013

Julia Gillard on an official visit to Beijing in 2013

He attempted to get closer to Japan. It might have worked – had he lasted more than two years in the brutal atmosphere of Canberra, or, for that matter, had Japan really offered a financial proposition remotely as tempting as Beijing’s.

For Malcolm Turnbull, early promise from his years of being a high-level lawyer and strategist of a more pragmatic, balanced relationship was scuppered by allegations local and national politicians had been influenced by Beijing. Anti-interference legislation followed.

Now Mr Morrison follows the same zig-zag path – tough on China in his language, but needing to accept the brute reality that for the country’s future prosperity, China still offers the best potential bet. And as his meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang this week showed, courtesy almost always returns.

Why is this such an issue?
After all, when China’s President Xi Jinping visited the country in 2014, he stood before the parliament in Canberra and said they needed to be more ambitious and adventurous in their vision towards the PRC. And China liked things like the rule of law, and the institutional predictability of Australia. Why would it seek to disrupt these attributes?

Part of the problem is simply about size. China’s emergence as such a key player, perhaps the key player, for Australia – a nation of a mere 24 million people with vast space around its shores to police, and a navy of only 27,000 – was always going to be disorientating.

Add to this mix the ways in which this whole phenomenon brings to the fore some deep, but often concealed, vulnerabilities in Australia’s national psyche. This is a country that has never, until recently, had to conceive of itself as an Asian one, despite its geographical location.

Europe was the major source of its migration till recent decades, and America of its security and much of its economic growth. Now Australia is receiving large numbers of new citizens whose families come from the region, including many from China.

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Australian universities are a good case study. Some have many thousands of Chinese students, meaning that these typically liberal institutions are dependent on funding from a stakeholder with very different values.

A recent Four Corners documentary from the national broadcaster ABC contained almost paranoid claims that a large number of this cohort posed a security risk through their political interference, and the ways they operated potentially as technology spies.

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There are cases of some academics feeling under pressure on issues like Taiwan, Hong Kong or Xinjiang. The Chinese government and its agents have sometimes acted in a heavy-handed way. Even so, it is easy to see why some Chinese might feel bewildered that their contribution to the coffers of the country in which they are coming to study and gain new skills is interpreted in such an ominous way.

Challenge for Australia

The simple fact is that no Australian leader has ever really addressed the other part of the China equation. They have been keen to talk, when it suited them, about the threats posed by this vast and very different new partner in terms of values and world view. But they have been far less keen to talk about the fears of their own country, and the issues it has with itself.

Only Mr Abbott offered any real insight into this, when in a moment of unscripted candour he stated, off-camera to Angela Merkel, that the Australian attitude to China was typified by “fear and greed”.

In June, the sight of Chinese warships in Sydney Harbour created a local stir

Australia can eschew investment, students, and opportunities from China, and sometimes does – Huawei is an example. But a wholesale attempt to do this, and seek partnerships in the Indo-Pacific for instance, would mean a big sacrifice, and significant reorientation of its mindset.

It seems that at the moment Mr Morrison is following the footsteps of his predecessors, and taking a highly contradictory attitude. That might be for the very simple harsh reality that, for all the confident talk of standing up to the China threat, his administration, and his country, has no other option.

Kerry Brown is professor of Chinese Studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. From 2012 to 2015 he was professor of Chinese politics and director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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