The importance of not caring (too much) about what Beijing thinks of us
9 Aug 2022|

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his cabinet have already done much to demonstrate Australia’s commitment to continuity and consistency on China policy, and it has been worth watching.

With the international system more precarious now than it has been in decades, the new government could have been forgiven for wanting to take some time to get its eye in before sending any major foreign policy signals.

But it quickly grasped the scale of the China challenge and moved to defend our sovereignty and national interests in ways that are easy to understand and broadly consistent with the previous government’s approach.

Beijing was always going to view the new government’s first few months as an opportunity to get Australia to change course or make a sufficiently large concession that could be used to divide Australian politics along China lines.

But neither occurred.

In responding to China’s military exercises surrounding Taiwan, its Solomon Islands push, the reckless Chinese interceptions of Australian military aircraft and Beijing’s latest list of unreasonable demands to reset the bilateral relationship, Australia’s political leaders have on balance struck the right note: Australia will act in the interests of Australia.

With both sides of Australian politics taking all of this very seriously, as they should, the question now is how to sustain a national focus and resolve over time.

Maintaining a realistic perspective and developing an honest communication style in relation to China matters will be the most useful habits for us to form over the long haul.

While three years in China’s bad books seems like a long time, we need to remember that we’re still in the feeling-out stage of a very long game that we’ll have to play to the end.

There will be many ups and downs in the bilateral relationship for many years to come, and in the next few years at least probably more downs than ups.

A healthy China discourse in Australian politics in this context is one that is not only free of partisanship and false bravado but also openly accepting of the long and potentially painful road ahead for Australia and the region.

To pace ourselves amid all this we need to be ourselves. And being ourselves requires us to focus sufficient attention on what it is we are doing and feeling, and to direct energy away from some of the things we cannot control.

Accepting that we cannot penetrate the black box of Chinese government decision-making or truly know what China’s leaders think of us is a good start.

Much time and energy can be wasted predicting how China will react to something we’re planning to say or do, and whether a punishment for something we have already said or done was intended to deter us or signal something to someone else.

Thinking that way is exhausting. It’s also dangerous, because it makes almost all problems and policy choices seem China-centric.

Beijing’s pressure-and-release tactics are designed to give China prominence and to take a psychological and emotional toll on us, and they often do.

But not letting what China says about us have any meaningful impact on our desire and endeavour to pursue our own interests in our own way will make those tactics far less effective over time.

And it will mean that, no matter what happens, China will not get the better of us.