- The Strategist - https://www.aspistrategist.org.au -

Openly discussing differences can help stabilise Australia–China relations

Posted By on November 2, 2023 @ 06:00

Appreciation of differences, more so than of common interests, is essential to maintaining most meaningful relationships over time.

It’s odd and a bit unfortunate, therefore, that common interests often limit the frame of reference for high-stakes meetings between political leaders on the international stage.

In most such meetings, including the one Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will have in a few days with China’s President Xi Jinping, the stakes are high because of the possible consequences of the two sides not finding a way to resolve their differences.

They should be talked about. But what can realistically be achieved in the bilateral relationship at this time?

For an Australian delegation reacquainting itself with the subtle signalling and careful choreography of a China visit, it’s reasonable to expect that few, if any, of those differences will be resolved to our satisfaction on this trip, and certainly not the ones that concern us the most.

But, if Australia wants to develop some form of enduring stability with China, the most difficult issues are the ones we need to take this opportunity to talk to China’s leaders about.

So, what are they?

Probably at the top of that list is Beijing’s desire to establish a China-centric regional order that’s predicated on pushing the United States out of Asia against its will.

We don’t want that, but why?

Well, we value our ability to pursue our own interests in our own way and don’t want to operate in a regional system based on deference in return for economic activity.

There’s clear evidence to support our assumption that a China-led regional order would more or less work in that way—evidence that China’s leaders would have a hard time refuting even if they wanted to.

Given that, the onus should be on China’s leaders to explain to us why a China-led regional order wouldn’t be like that, if that’s still what they want us to believe.

Then again, maybe they don’t care what we think anymore, or want us to resign ourselves to a future of deference. The point is we don’t know because we don’t talk about it.

The next big difference between us is the role and importance of values in our respective political systems. And, more specifically, Australia’s willingness to act in accordance with our values under pressure.

As I’ve previously argued on this forum, it has always felt to me that not emphasising values in our dealings with China inadvertently signals to Beijing a willingness to trade them away, which is reason enough to bring them up at the highest level when we’re given the chance.

Australian leaders used to instinctively keep values at arm’s length in high-level interactions with China, not because they weren’t sure of the importance we placed on the values themselves, but because of the likelihood of annoying China if we were forced to act in defence of them.

Those days are over, and China needs to know that.

China’s alternative vision for global security underscored by closer alignment with Russia against the US is another major point of difference. We don’t share that vision for obvious reasons that, again, should be clearly stated in leader-level meetings with China.

These differences combined clearly place limits on the type of relationship that can realistically be developed between Australia and China.

That said, as Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles noted in his statement introducing the 2023 defence strategic review, a stable relationship between Australia and China is ultimately in the interests of both countries.

While it may be uncomfortable in the moment, speaking our mind with China is essential to build mutual understanding.

The alternative is turning up to Beijing each year and acting like a kid in a shopping centre sitting awkwardly on Santa’s lap, eager to say whatever needs to be said in return for material gain but really wanting to get the hell out of there.

Even with all the challenges we face, we can do a far sight better than that.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/openly-discussing-differences-can-help-stabilise-australia-china-relations/

[1] argued: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/downsizing-australia-china-relations/

[2] Russia: https://www.cnn.com/2023/10/30/china/china-xiangshan-forum-security-russia-united-states-intl-hnk/index.html