Article Originally Published in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 6th of September 2019
Written by Kevin Rudd
The most important thing about Australia having a national China strategy is to have one. At present, we do not. What we have instead is a government with a series of attitudes about China, rather than a coherent policy for dealing with China.
We seem to have a government more interested in fanning public hysteria over ‘‘reds under the beds’’, almost a new yellow peril, all suddenly requiring the Australian people to stand up against the Chinese hordes. It has taken what is a three-out-of-10 challenge to Australian national interests and values and turned it into a nine-out-of-10 existential threat.
Moreover, it’s an approach driven primarily by the Liberals’ domestic political agenda of trying to define the Labor Party as soft on China – rather than a calm, clear-headed, rational analysis of both the challenges and the opportunities we face with China’s rise, America’s response and a region increasingly finding itself in the strategic cross-hairs.
I’m not pretending developing and implementing a comprehensive China strategy is easy. It’s not. But the absence of one is deleterious to our enduring national interests, allowing China to become the political plaything of the likes of Andrew ( Churchill on Trainer Wheels) Hastie.
So here are five basic principles the government might consider for the future.
First, an effective national China strategy involves a disciplined cabinet process across all government agencies, including a clear and detailed articulation of Australian national interests and consistency over time.
Second, be as clear as possible about the likely direction of US China strategy, both under the Trump administration and any successor Democrat administration, and whether every element of such a strategy is compatible with Australian national interests. While the current administration has declared the end of “strategic engagement” with Beijing and the beginning of a new era of “strategic competition”, there are fundamental divisions within the administration as to what that means: a continuing trade war, a technology war, a finance war, wider economic decoupling, or a new version of strategic containment? All these voices are alive within the Trump White House and nobody is certain which will ultimately prevail.
Third, it would be useful for the current government to learn from previous governments. My government embarked upon a two-year internal cabinet process between 2009 and 2011 to develop a national China strategy. It became our strategic framework for handling the growing complexity of the China challenge. It shaped the Defence White Paper of 2009 on our future force structure given the range of contingencies we might confront from China’s rise, including China’s military activities in our wider region.
This wasn’t well received in Beijing. Nor were decisions such as rejecting the Chinese application to take over Rio Tinto though Chinalco. Nor our decision not to allow Huawei to supply hardware for the national broadband network. Not to mention positions our position on human rights in Tibet, Xinjiang and Australian citizens incarcerated by the Chinese government. But we did all this though a unified strategic framework. And we were roundly criticised by the Liberals, and their business community acolytes, for being far too hard-line.
Nonetheless, we managed over the same period to grow the Australia-China relationship in many other areas. Trade between our two countries increased by 115 per cent between 2007 and 2013. The investment relationship flourished as did tourism. Between 2014 and 2019, trade between our two countries has increased by about half that amount.
We worked closely with our Chinese counterparts in the G20 on how to re-stimulate the global economy at the time of the global financial crisis and the great global recession that followed in 2008-9. China welcomed Australia joining the G20.
A fourth principle goes to the conceptual framework we used to underpin our national China strategy. It could best be phrased as “constructive realism”. We should be realistic about where we will always disagree with China: our alliance with the US, human rights and various aspects of foreign interference.
There are, however, areas where it may be difficult to work constructively with Beijing , but where it’s possible to do so. We could engage our Chinese friends on the future the Belt and Road Initiative, as opposed to simply demonising it as the definition of all ideological evil.
We should engage China on its climate change policy and performance. China is the largest emitter in the world. It will shape much of Australia’s own climate change future.
Finally, a credible national China strategy should avoid egregious own goals. Take for example the South Pacific. By 2013-14 , our aid to the Pacific Island states was $1.2 billion. By 2015, the incoming conservative government had halved it to $640 million. As of 2018-19, Australia’s total development assistance to Pacific Island countries stood at $1.1 billion, still less than 2013. No wonder China sees a new strategic opening in the South Pacific.