The coming of age of Australia’s relations with China
19 Jun 2020|

The total loss of innocence in Australia’s bilateral relationship with China over the past few months reminds me of a scene in the classic 1986 coming-of-age film Stand by Me. When asked around the campfire what food he would eat if he could have only one for the rest of his life, Vern, the film’s most loveable character, emphatically says, ‘That’s easy. Pez. Cherry flavour Pez. No question about it.’ These are the questions that seem important to young boys until they discover girls, the film’s narrator observes.

With Vern-like enthusiasm (and even without the imperative to choose one) successive Australian governments hitched our prosperity to a single market, China. Ever-stronger economic and trade ties to China would benefit us ad infinitum, the loudest voices said, come what may—no question about it.

They were wrong.

Being overly dependent on China has hurt us, mainly because China’s leaders have increasingly relied on economic coercion to achieve their goals. The huge tariffs imposed on Australia’s barley exports to China in response to our call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated to a captive Australian audience China’s willingness to punish those it thinks have stepped out of line.

China’s more frequent and intense disinformation campaigns have also become too troubling to ignore. There now appears to be no weaknesses in the international system that the Chinese leadership won’t try to exploit to its long-term political, strategic or ideological advantage. As Foreign Minister Marise Payne highlighted in her National Security College address on Australia’s agenda for the Covid-19 era and beyond, ‘It is troubling that some countries are using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy and promote their own, more authoritarian models.’ She is right to call this out, and to link it to a disturbing pattern of behaviour that Australia can no longer accept.

Against this backdrop, more people are thinking seriously about what a region deterred by Chinese coercion would look like. Some have concluded that an increasingly aggressive and autocratic China will in time undermine Australian democracy and Australian interests, and some are waiting to see what will unfold. But they are all interested.

The reality of this downturn in the relationship is disturbing for most, but that is why it is leading to enduring changes in our collective thinking about what Australia believes in and stands for as an international actor. We have changed and will likely continue to change in the face of this enormous national challenge.

That we are looking at new supply lines for essential items independent of Beijing’s influence reflects a commitment to no longer avoiding tension that could jeopardise our economic and trade relationship with China. This is a big step. That there are fewer accusations flying around among China analysts of prioritising strategic over economic interests and vice versa reflects a collective realisation that economic, political and strategic considerations are now mashed together in a way that can’t be un-mashed. Another big step.

Looking back it will be hard to fathom there was a time when most of us believed that a country with such obvious and open ambition to push the United States out of Asia and assume what it sees as its rightful place in the world would allow us to skip along the path of unending growth and prosperity without cost. And that naked economic coercion would not eventually be a permanent feature of the bilateral relationship.

That the China we are dealing with today had not manifested fully in their time should not exonerate those who either saw this coming and did too little, or those who did not take seriously enough the prospect of it ever becoming so.

I like to think Vern grew up to realise that the world does not revolve around Pez, and that it is in fact bad for you in large quantities. And that he was better for it.