The passing of Australia’s panda passion
26 Apr 2022|

In Canberra’s great China debate, the panda huggers dominated the dragon slayers for the first 15 years of this century.

Lots of happy huggers drowned out those who feared that the dragon danger would trump the panda promise.

China’s cascading growth enriched Australia in the defining story of the Oz economy in those 15 years. The optimism of the panda huggers was the positive vision of the Asian century.

Amid many happy panda moments, two Chinese leaders came to Canberra to address parliament.

Hu Jintao spoke to a joint meeting of parliament in 2003 (the day after an address by the US president) in what was a landmark event in the history of Australia–China relations.

Xi Jinping came for his parliamentary performance in 2014 (the same week as India’s Narendra Modi).

Xi’s Canberra visit was the peak panda moment for Oz.

China’s president sealed the Australia–China free trade agreement that’d taken 10 years of negotiation. Almost at the same moment, China surged past the United States (on the parity pricing measure) to become the world’s biggest economy.

To buttress the panda huggers, Xi confronted the ‘big guy’ question posed by the dragon slayers, putting it this way: ‘Others naturally wonder how the big guy will move and act, and they may be concerned that the big guy may push them around, stand in their way or even take up their place.’

The president then detailed all the ways China would be a benign big guy, finishing with a vision for the new ‘China–Australia comprehensive strategic partnership’, which would ‘enhance peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific’.

Next, Xi jetted off to Tasmania to complete the full Oz set. It was his fifth time in Australia since 1988, and now he’d been to all six states and the two territories. Peak panda, indeed.

These days, Xi and his ministers won’t even talk to their Australian counterparts, while the ‘strategic partnership’ is burnt and buried. Interring that vision of partnership in a speech in February 2021, Prime Minister Scott Morrison commented, ‘The world has changed.’

Only eight years on from peak panda, Canberra’s huggers are an endangered species, tottering towards extinction. Only the dragon is in view.

Former panda huggers have become dragon patters or dragon prodders. In a nod to China’s might, the dragon slayers these days tend to be dragon punchers.

This history is the frame for the transformation story of a notable panda hugger, Joe Hockey, Australia’s former treasurer and ambassador to the US. The memoir of his time in Washington, Diplomatic, devotes one of its 12 chapters to China.

Hockey’s China reflections mirror those of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose memoir has a similar chapter on the trek from hugger to fear of the frenemy.

Hockey begins his account stating that ‘China has been a constant throughout my life in politics, diplomacy and now business’. And China, he says, ‘is also key in the evolution of the Australia–US relationship itself’.

Hockey first visited China in 1978, at the age of 13. His parents had booked one of the first commercial tours of ‘a secretive and closed-off communist regime that Australians knew little about’.

As Australia’s representative at an APEC finance ministers’ meeting in Beijing, Hockey summoned up that boyhood memory in a brief speech to China’s premier and the politburo.

Recalling his first sight of a dimly lit Beijing, Hockey said he’d been privileged to see ‘the greatest economic transformation of the most people in the history of humanity’. The leadership, he notes, were ‘nodding in furious agreement’. The next bit of the speech changed the mood:

‘I want to thank you for embracing capitalism,’ I said. Now their jaws dropped. You don’t fully understand the power of silence until you drop a clanger like that in the Great Hall of the People while addressing China’s top brass.

The Hockey save was to keep going and end with this pledge: ‘We want to work in partnership with you to continue that great story.’

In 2015, when ‘things had begun to heat up between the US and China’, Hockey, as treasurer, joined Prime Minister Tony Abbott in a meeting with President Barack Obama. Obama, he writes, asked Australia to stop selling iron ore to China:

Both the prime minister and I were astounded. Abbott just palmed it off, but I was more animated in my reply. ‘That’s ridiculous!’ I protested furiously … [W]e weren’t going to trash our economy for President Obama—or any other president for that matter.

Hockey writes that he was the ‘strongest advocate in cabinet’ for Australia to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He won that debate, even though the US and Japan refused to join. It was the last big panda win in Canberra before the chill started to creep in.

Hockey flew to Beijing for the signing ceremony for the AIIB’s creation:

It was particularly special that mine was the first signature on the agreement—it’s handy to represent a country whose name begins with A! I stood on the dais and held up the pen, a touch that China’s President Xi Jinping loved, and the photo went around the world.

Arriving in the US as ambassador in 2016, Hockey writes of Washington’s realisation that China had ‘snuck up’ on a ‘distracted’ America, lulled by ‘the false sense that it controlled the direction of the relationship. America was hubristic in its treatment of modern China.’

There’s no Hockey reflection on whether China snuck up on Australia. Instead, his China chapter concludes:

Despite our integrated trading relationships in mining and commodities, and the vast numbers of Chinese students who have come to our shores, the Chinese government is treating Australia appallingly. The Australian government has been doing completely the right thing in response.

China has been immature in its dealings with Australia of late. Confected trade embargoes, WTO complaints and refusals to even meet with Australian ministers are simply crazy. The Chinese leadership seems to think the best thing it can do is humiliate and bully Australia. These are the same tactics defenders of China over the years (including me) had warned against in international forums. They are not the actions of a global superpower.

This behaviour towards Australia is only going to embolden our alliance with the US. It will not prise us apart.

Beijing has managed a difficult feat—it has found ways to drive Australia even closer to Washington. Hockey judges that the creation last year of AUKUS ‘is the most significant national security development for Australia since the ANZUS treaty itself’. AUKUS, he writes, will ‘change not just Australia’s naval and defence capability but our standing in the world order—especially as it relates to China and its strategy for the Indo-Pacific’.

Joe Hockey, former panda hugger, now lines up with the dragon prodders.