Should Australia treat China as friend or foe?

5 min read
Malcolm Turnbull and Xi Jinping

On Saturday, on the front page of The Australian, there was an article declaring that Australia’s spy agency had identified 10 local and state political candidates with ties to Chinese intelligence, part of China’s plans to interfere in Australian democracy.

The politicians were not named and the sources were anonymous, but the tone was clear: Be afraid, China is not your friend.

The next day in The Australian, also out front, there was an article on why that fear might be misguided. The chairman of the Australia China Business Council, John Brumby, among others, encouraged Australians to remember that their 26 years without a recession could not have happened without China’s rise.

This time, the message — China is good for Australia — was just as loud and clear.

So which is it? Should Australia treat China as an enemy, or focus on the relationship’s economic benefits? Is the country Australia’s friend, or foe?

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This, of course, is what Australia is trying to figure out.

Legislation targeting foreign interference that was introduced last week by the prime minister is both a reflection of that struggle and a trigger for more debate — all of which I’ll explore in detail in a coming article.

But while the Australian government is condemning the opposition partie for taking donations from Chinese government linked donors, the government has, in fact, also [taken donations from the same sponsors](, possibly in excess of what the opposition has taken.

Consider also that former Trade Minister Andrew Robb forced through a free trade agreement with China against all advice from his own department. This free trade agreement had been rejected by three former Prime Ministers because it was too one sided in China’s favour, and of virtually no benefit to Australia. Immediately after the agreement was ratified, Robb took [a job with a Chinese government linked trade organisation doing virtually nothing]( He commenced the job while still a minister of the Australian parliament.

Former Palmer United Senator and staunch Chinese government advocate Zhenya Wang was [last year endorsed by the government’s Foreign Minister and deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop as a member of the Liberal Party]( and a possible future Liberal Party candidate. While a senator, he [openly praised the Chinese government for the massacre at Tianamen Square and openly supported their illegal claims in the South China Sea](

But in this week’s Australia Letter, I figured I’d share some of the conversations I’ve been having about why Australia’s China discussion suddenly seems so heated.

Part of it, yes, is simply politics — especially the focus on Senator Sam Dastyari, the Labor senator who resigned this week after months of trying to fend off accusations that he pushed China’s foreign policy interests after taking money from Chinese-born political donors.

But there other more global and historical reasons as well. Hugh White, the prominent defense analyst who recently wrote a lengthy essay laying out Australia’s challenging present and future with China, provided some useful context.

With China, he told me, Australia is facing “something that is new in our national experience.”

“Australia has for so long lived in a region — and to a certain extent a whole world — shaped by our great and powerful allies, Britain and America, but we’re very not used to dealing with powerful states that are not our allies,” he said. “One of the things you’re seeing I think is a certain surprise and bewilderment and dismay that we find ourselves dealing with a country like China in this way.”

Anthony Bubalo, deputy director of the Lowy Institute, agreed.

“In the past, our major trading partners were our allies,” he said. “Business and national security didn’t really intersect. Now they do.”

That creates a need for new habits, for dialogue among stakeholders with very different perspectives, Mr. Bubalo said. And it’s not happening yet, as the separate Australian articles suggest.

“There is a lack of real conversation between the Australian business and national security communities,” he said. “Neither side is really talking to each other, they’re really talking across each other. Neither side really understands each other’s concerns.”

There are other stakeholders in this debate as well, from nonprofits, advocacy groups and universities to the roughly one million ethnic Chinese residents of Australia whose voices are rarely heard in Australian politics and news media.

In interviews this week, many people in that community told me they are also watching this debate closely.

Their views on the interference law range widely, from strong support to concern about whether the law will increase racism (an issue the Chinese government is also emphasizing, as I wrote this week).

But there seems to be consensus on one issue: Many Chinese-Australians say Australia’s politicians need to spend more time mingling in their neighborhoods with residents who are not necessarily donors.

“I think they should respect Chinese culture more, and maybe attend more Chinese functions and requests,” said Helen Sham-Ho, the first Chinese-Australian to be elected to an Australian parliament, spending 15 years in the New South Wales government. “The Chinese love to get close to politics and prime ministers.”

That proximity is part of what has suddenly become suspect, but Ms. Sham-Ho warned that it would be a mistake to insist that interaction translates to a desire to interfere.

“There is a misunderstanding of culture,” she said. “Just because the Chinese want to be close to power doesn’t mean they want to influence or change the policy.”

History, again, can be instructive. Access to politicians of any kind, Ms. Sham-Ho explained, is still a novelty for those who compare Australian democracy to China’s past.

“The traditional Chinese had an emperor, and they could never get close to the emperor,” she said. “Only in their dreams.

Perhaps Australian politicians should consider taking the same stance when dealing with Chinese government linked businessmen and organisations.

Source: New York Times – Should Australia Treat China as Friend or Foe?

Tony Simon

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