Current Issue #488

Modern Times:
Our relationship with China hangs by a thread


The intrusion of domestic politics in international affairs has not only limited the opportunity for effective diplomacy but has shaken the foundations on which modern Australia was built.

Where once our leaders spoke of finding security in Asia, rather than from Asia, our historic fears have been revisited, then confirmed. Where once we realised the social and economic value of migration, we now question the validity of this important underpinning of modern Australia.

Beijing’s avoidable and delayed response to the virus contributed to the current situation, which will have devastating and long-lasting consequences. The connection between the slow initial response and the structure of China’s government is difficult to deny.

The thoroughness of China’s response thereafter was, however, admirable. Moreover, as Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty pointed out, China provided the virus gene sequence almost immediately, without which development of a vaccine anytime soon would be unimaginable.

If China was the source of the virus, the actions of other governments, notably those of the United States, have contributed colossally to the long-term health, social and economic impacts it will have. The reputations of both China and America have been diminished. Yet if China remains Communist and Trump remains President, Australia must continue to engage constructively with two countries which are respectively our largest trading partner and our largest source of investment.

The reasons for statesmanship in the face of disruption, anxiety and frustration go well beyond economic. Though mainstream Australia sees America as an historic ally with whom we share cultural and political propinquity, in China we see geographic reality and deepening connection forged through commerce and migration.

Political calculation may ultimately reverse both the exchange of goods, and engagement of people between Australia and China. When Senator Kristina Keneally questioned whether Australia should “want migrants to return to Australia in the same numbers… as before the crisis”, she tapped into an ominous double opportunity: populist sentiment and economic illiteracy.

Such comments from a Labor senator were unimaginable in the 1990s when Paul Keating extolled the virtues of open economies and engagement with Asia. If left unchecked, these sentiments may come to define our international and social relations for years to come. They are already keenly felt by many first-generation Australians, acutely aware of and sensitive to their portrayal in the media.

As some Australian commentators are given significant latitude to engage in simplistic and occasionally visceral commentary about China, incidences of racial vilification grow. Criticism of China appears in Australia today to be the easiest path to a headline. Too often, facile bellicosity has made its way into the mainstream media. This has produced an uncomfortable environment for Australians of Asian descent.

I do not oppose any person or government taking a principled stance against actions they deem morally offensive. Legitimate criticism notwithstanding, what is the proposed solution? Disengagement will not bring the desired outcome, nor a better world. Does anyone seriously suppose that retreating from the myriad connections assiduously developed over many decades will result in a more secure, economically prosperous and socially vibrant future?

For the past five years, I have been absorbed in my employer, Port Adelaide Football Club’s engagement in China. For the first time in its history, our indigenous game made a strenuous effort to promote the sport internationally, with the equally important objective of opening its door to the local Chinese community. It was a privilege to be part of this movement, and I hope it continues. I do not believe we would be “selling our souls” to further deepen these connections.

Most disconcerting was the suggestion that the merit of this endeavour was uniquely defined by commercial success. The tendency to conflate ‘China’ uniquely with ‘commercial gain’ – just as we did with Japan in the 1980s and 1990s – has a dehumanising effect. The commercial motivation for Port Adelaide’s engagement was matched by a deep commitment to human relationships and cultural understanding.

National interests are multifaceted, complex and occasionally competing. Recent intrusions of political calculation into our ongoing reflection on Australia’s place in the world, and its mutually reinforcing impact on public and social discourse, is doing more harm than good.

Andrew Hunter

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