China’s statement following the first meeting between foreign ministers Penny Wong and Wang Yi has been denounced as “China’s four demands”. One such “demand” is that the two countries seek common ground. Oh, the effrontery!
The other three speak of Australia regarding China as a partner rather than a rival, of positive and pragmatic social foundations, and of avoiding being controlled by any third party.
Do we really insist on being a rival, on having negative social foundations with China or being controlled by a third party?
Such is the depth to which the Australia-China relationship has plunged in the past few years that conservative commentators and media organisations treat what ordinarily would be considered a positive statement from China’s foreign minister as outrageous demands.
Some critics do not want the relationship to be reset; they thrive on the tensions between our two countries. And they insist the breakdown is all China’s fault.
With so much fault in the deteriorating relationship between Australia and China under the previous Coalition government, there’s plenty to share around.
Onto China’s plate can be ladled its military build-up in the South China Sea, its trade sanctions on Australian barley, wine, coal and other commodities, and the imprisonment of two Australian citizens on national security grounds with no clear explanation of the allegations against them.
Australia’s plate is laden with; anti-dumping duties on steel and aluminium that might well contravene global trading rules; the Morrison government’s blocking of a Chinese company’s bid to buy a Japanese-owned dairy and drinks manufacturer in Australia (surely not on national security grounds); Morrison’s mimicking of former US president Donald Trump in his criticisms of China’s developing-country status at the World Trade Organisation; and the Morrison government’s decision to go it alone in pushing for an independent international inquiry into the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan.
Proven track record
The Liberals have form when it comes to demonising outsiders. If it wasn’t the “commos” coming down through Vietnam to attack us in the 1960s, it was “too much Asian immigration” in the late-1980s, the asylum seeker boats of the 2000s allegedly carrying terrorists, the African gangs preventing Melburnians going to restaurants in 2018, and the asylum seekers in 2019 who would kick Aussies off hospital and public housing waiting lists if they were medically evacuated from Christmas Island.
The Liberals, who before this year’s election accused Labor of being soft on China, and deputy leader Richard Marles of being a Manchurian candidate, claim they were not criticising Chinese Australians. Those voters didn’t agree: the Morrison government lost five seats with sizeable Chinese-Australian voting populations: Reid, Bennelong, North Sydney, Chisholm, Kooyong and Tangney. And they nearly lost Menzies.
Morrison is complaining that China is buying wheat from Russia as war rages in Ukraine, but has no problem with India massively ramping up its oil purchases from Russia.
Wong’s face-to-face meeting with Wang was the first in three years between the two countries at the foreign minister level. It was a genuine breakthrough.
China’s proposal is to make a fresh start. That doesn’t require sacrificing our sovereignty or kow-towing to China.
Trade Minister Don Farrell has proposed talks with China in an effort to resolve our trade disputes. Both countries are taking the other to the World Trade Organisation to rule on the disputes. The problem is that the US has gutted the Appellate Body by refusing to appoint new judges as the terms of existing judges expired. It will not be revived until at least 2024.
As the Albanese government is pressured to maintain a hostile attitude towards China, the Biden administration is negotiating to reduce some of the Trump tariffs on imports from China.
China’s proposal is to put the past behind us and make a fresh start. That doesn’t require sacrificing our sovereignty or kow-towing to China. Nor does it require Australia to support China on any of the matters about which we disagree. At least if we resumed talking, we might have a better chance of getting the two Australians out of prison.
There are sound economic, social and moral reasons for Australia restoring dialogue with China. Among the economic reasons is that China’s economy is bigger than the rest of Asia’s combined, and our exports to China exceed the total of those to our next eight biggest markets.
The raucous opponents of the Albanese government resetting the relationship between our two countries are playing a dangerous game with Australia’s foreign policy and ambitions for a peaceful, prosperous and stable region.
Craig Emerson is Director of the APEC Study Centre at RMIT University, visiting fellow at the ANU, adjunct professor at Victoria University’s College of Business and chair of the McKell Institute.
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