Opinion: What the Chinese really think about Australian resolve

Photo by Alejandro Luengo on Unsplash
Sunday 12 November 2023

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

The top foreign students from greater China finishing their higher degree courses at Australian universities will be honoured in the capital later this month.

Before returning home to professional careers, 30 of these outstanding scholars will gain rich insights to the great institutions of state and culture via a series of visits and lectures. The goal is understanding.

The new Stephen FitzGerald Scholars Program has been named after Australia's first ambassador to the Peoples Republic of China when diplomatic relations commenced in 1973 - 50 years ago this month.

One of Australia's foremost Sino-experts, the 85-year-old Dr FitzGerald remains a highly respected figure in both countries after a lifetime dedicated to constructive dialogue and intellectual exchange.

With the current thawing of bilateral relations, the timing of this initiative is fortuitous and reflects the enlightened view that tetchy state-to-state relations are more durable when people-to-people relationships underpin them.

If there was a single word from Anthony Albanese's landmark official visit to the PRC, it was "stabilise" - a usefully bland term conveying neither guilt nor retreat. Nor even ambition come to that. The visit was all about stabilising a relationship that is unusually prone to insult and overreaction.

China is Australia's largest export market, a fact that has helped insulate it from exogenous shocks spanning four decades - from the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09, and the pandemic of 2020.

But with that protection came vulnerability. The world's largest economy by some measures, could afford to blank Australia.

But why would it want to? To answer that, it helps to get in the mind of the Chinese leadership.

Yun Jiang, the inaugural AIIA China Matter Fellow at the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), has tried to do that by travelling to China specifically to talk with international relations academics and analysts who consider the bilateral relationship all the time.

Her impressions are intriguing. For a start, she found both a willingness to talk about Sino-Australian relations and a refreshing diversity of views. Yet there were common elements such as a widespread sense of pessimism about the medium-term outlook, and a certain incredulity at Australia's meek bipartisan surrender to US strategic interests.

"Most PRC-based scholars and analysts are not optimistic about the long-term prospects for the Australia-China relationship," she writes in her report launched at Parliament House on Thursday.

Measured against the much-hyped unfreezing and the expectation of trade sanctions being lifted on wine, lobster, and other lines, it is something of a downbeat assessment.

The reason? First and foremost, the PRC assesses Australia as lacking the capacity for independent thought because it is so hostage to its alliance with the United States.

Worse, it concludes Australia's bellicose rhetoric of recent years - mainly under Scott Morrison's leadership - was calculated to inveigle the US to keep us covered or, as Jiang put it, to act as "a shortcut to ensuring that it [Australia] will not be abandoned by the US".

Interestingly, Jiang discerned as much heart as head in the PRC's reaction to that unsubtle Australian messaging describing Beijing's indignant decision to punish Australia as "partly due to emotion rather than wholly a rational calculation of risk and reward".

Clearly there are emotions on both sides. China's deep sense of victimhood and its over sensitivity to being disrespected now that it has become a great power (again) is a factor. So too the almost theatrical Australian virtue signalling over its unimpeachible sovereignty.

Amid the hype around the Prime Minister's visit, China hawks in the major parties, think-tanks, journalism and the academy lauded the success of Australia's brave refusal to kow-tow to China's intimidation. We held our nerve, stood by our values, conceded nothing and prevailed, the argument goes.

But if this was independent foreign policy it was very much at the shallow end of the pool. The days of John Howard's delusional insistence that we did not have to choose between our prosperity and our security are long gone. When the crunch came, our defiance of one superpower's bluster was enabled because we had done just that, chosen.

Far from reinforcing our sovereignty, it reflected what Allan Behm diagnosed in his superbly clear-eyed 2022 book - No Enemies, No Friends - as "a profound insecurity at the heart of the Australian character".

Behm characterised Australia as a chronically insecure nation of flunkeys all too eager to display our subservience for fear of being abandoned by our great and powerful American friend.

Jiang's conversations with Chinese thinkers identifies a similar theme revealing how poorly they believe Australia has leveraged its unique position as the resident Anglophone power in an Asian region.

"Most of these scholars see Australia's decisions primarily through the prism of US-PRC competition ... Canberra's choices are not driven by Australia's own national interests," she writes.

Among the more confronting observations she gleaned was the eminently sensible view that Australia simply had not needed to try so hard to impress the US because the exigencies of great power competition dictated that the US would come courting Australia anyway.

That's an awful lot of leverage to blithely give away. And quite a bet to place on a compromised superpower that is neither in this region nor certain where it stands on democracy and multilateralism into the bargain.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  13 November 2023/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications