We Need to Rethink Our China Relationship, but Disengagement Is No Option

27 April 2020

Even before this pandemic, Australias relationship with China was anything but straightforward.
At the end of 2019, reports of interference by the Chinese Communist Party in our democracy, violent crackdowns in Hong Kong, clashes in the South China Sea, upstream Chinese dams of Mekong tributaries threatening water security in Vietnam and Laos, and leaked documents outlining mass detention of Uighurs coloured the debate about the future direction of the bilateral relationship.
After decades in which economic opportunities and hope for greater freedoms shaped Australias consciousness of China, our relationship had clearly entered a new phase.
As Chinas weight has grown, it has asserted itself much more. Exerting interests is what all countries do not least great powers. But our interests differ, as do our values: China is an authoritarian one-party state; Australia is a democracy.
Australias task is to engage productively with China, to manage differences while standing up for our values, sovereignty and democracy. This has become more challenging as a result of COVID-19.
The pandemic has starkly demonstrated the global consequences of an initial response in Wuhan in which transparency was not prioritised. Successive disinformation efforts have attempted to obscure the virus origin and discredit other countries responses.
This has done little to engender trust. If anything, China has given succour to its critics. This month, Chinas Embassy in France published an article attacking French nurses and fabricating racist attacks by French lawmakers against World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus.
Humanity deserves better than a propaganda push and credibility depends on doing better. We need to be united in our commitment to transparency and scientific accuracy from leaders to build trust and get to the bottom of this.
This is why Labor supports the governments calls for WHO reforms and an independent inquiry into the virus outbreak. Australia must take an active role in rallying international support for transparency and improving the international institutions on which we rely.
As a substantial power but not a superpower Australia needs international co-operation. The shortsightedness of Scott Morrisons negative globalism rhetoric is now writ large. The multilateral system namely the United Nations and its subsidiary organisations is what we as sovereign states make it, from ensuring an effective and independent WHO to facilitating global trade.
Its a system that has served us well, underpinning the greatest and fairest period of economic growth in human history, and providing life-saving pathways to conflict resolution. But it is a system that is threatened by countries using it to score political points and play out rivalries.
Now is not the time for countries to suggest they may walk away despite perceptions of national interference in the WHO diminishing its standing right when the world most needs a credible body co-ordinating the global response to the biggest pandemic in a century.
Just as we want countries to avoid politicising the WHO, we must also resist temptations to partisanship. Our response to the pandemic and our relationship with China should be above the political fray.
Several politicians have already overreached on Australias foreign policy to play to their own audience. To distract from the Ruby Princess debacle, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton sought to deliberately provoke China when he aired the conspiracy theory that the virus originated in a Chinese lab despite it already being discounted by the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Having said that, others have demonstrated the responsibility we would expect from cabinet ministers such as Agriculture Minister David Littleprouds refusal to continue the governments misrepresentations of the WHO. Australias relationship with China has enough serious issues to manage without feeding conspiracy theories.
We have been seized for some time of the implications of the growing mistrust between the worlds great powers. While the strategic consequences of the pandemic still have a long way to play out, competition was already outweighing co-operation and recent events only appear to be accelerating this negative trend.
Put simply, navigating a relationship with China will be more difficult in the months and years ahead.
In recent weeks weve seen heightened clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea, followed by Chinas attempts to secure administrative control of the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands. Meanwhile, Hong Kong authorities arrested democracy activists including 81-year-old "father of democracy" Martin Lee.
As the world grapples with this crisis, it will not look kindly upon any country that sought to take advantage of it for its own interests. Power alone does not confer legitimacy.
Australia must emphasise that now is the time for all countries to work together, rather than press differences to gain strategic advantages.
We must also begin a legitimate debate about the nature of our recovery, including the terms of our engagement with China and others. We should be considering how to secure key supply chains and greater diversification, without being dismissive of the reality of Chinas economic weight and the depth of our economic ties which have been hugely beneficial to both countries, and will be important in recovering from this crisis.
Our relationship with China, as with any country, must be guided by our values and our interests including transparency and sovereignty. We need to rethink our relationship, but disengagement is not an option.
This Opinion Piece was first published in the SMH/The Age on 27 April, 2020.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.