China, Australia and the Wider World

Kerry Brown has been the Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. During his time here he has engaged with the Australia-China relationship, and scholarship on China in Australia, in its varied dimensions. He kindly agreed to offer some reflections on his experience in Australia in response to questions posed by Rebecca Fabrizi of the Australian Centre on China in the World on the eve of leaving Sydney to take up a position at King’s College, London, as Director of the Lau China Institute. — The Editors


El-Alamein Memorial Fountain, Sydney. Photograph: GRB

El-Alamein Memorial Fountain, Sydney. Photograph: GRB

Q: Kerry, we are sorry to see you leave Australia, but congratulate you on your new role at King’s in London. In your job in Sydney you’ve been at the heart of the debate on Australia-China relations for three years. You have been a prolific commentator on policy developments, but you’ve also been dealing with the practical side of bringing Chinese students to your university and integrating them. We are really interested to hear what you think you will take away from this experience. We have a few questions for you.

We are not too disappointed around here with the change of Prime Minister. Do you think that the recently ousted prime minister Tony Abbott really had a China policy? You have been heard to say that Australia is ‘too craven’ in its dealings with China and the US. What would you like to see the new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, change?

A: If Abbott had anything you could describe as a China Policy then it seemed to have two prongs — maximise economic returns as far as possible in Australia’s favour, and ensure that Australia went out of its way to signify that its diplomatic heart still lay in Washington, even to the extent of covering Japanese with ardour and speaking up the relationship with them whenever the opportunity arose as an indirect way to garner more US favour. For the first, the problem is that Abbott’s approach could best be summarised as ‘get as much as we can materially in terms of profits from commodity exports and direct investment into our economy from China to create jobs for us’, without really appreciating that all trade, all economics for that matter, is a two-way street. The real issue is for Australia to start striving for a more dynamic, two-sided economic relationship with China. I didn’t really hear Abbott or his colleagues talk much about getting more Australian investment and commitment into the Chinese market to find market opportunities there. His approach to China economically was a bit like comfort eating — binging on things for the present you knew would ultimately run out (iron ore in particular and the profits that created), but with no real long-term thinking about what to do when that came to an end. His main achievement was to bring the Free Trade Agreement [FTA] with China to completion, even though it awaits ratification. But once again, he did little to articulate to a somewhat skeptical public the real utility of having an FTA and the ways in which it might retool and reposition Australia’s relationship with China economically into a more diversified, more dynamic and more sustainable basis by focusing on services and Australia’s intellectual assets. I guess the reason why he didn’t do this with much passion is because he thought of China primarily negatively — as a problem that you needed to control rather than a place you could possibly in some respects embrace. For that reason, his view was symptomatic of a great deal of mainstream thinking in Australia about China, and for this reason he was never able to show much leadership. We can only hope that intellectually and in terms of business acumen, Turnbull will be better. It would be hard to be worse.

Q: Which individuals or groups in Australia do you think are the most influential in Australia’s public debate on China? Are there major differences between groups, like media, business, government, academia?

A: The debate about China and its meaning for Australia domestically is quite fragmented. China becoming Australia’s largest trading partner in 2010 has demanded a different kind of public debate about what the long-term impact of this might be, particularly in view of the big difference in political model between the two countries, and their understanding of their respective values. On the whole, Australia divides between business constituencies, which are broadly pragmatic in their views of China, the media which is complex and divided between well-informed analysis and sensationalist presentations (for instance, about Chinese involvement in property investments in cities like Sydney or universities being infiltrated by students working for Chinese intelligence agencies as the Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2014), and government. The latter is the most complex, with no major cross party consensus on specific policy towards China, or at least the tone of that policy. Under Rudd, ambiguity reigned — true friends [zhengyou 诤友] one day when Rudd went to Beijing in 2008, but potential threat the next in the White Paper on Defence he sponsored in 2009 and the hosting of rotating marines in Darwin which he sanctioned. Under Gillard, there was tepid engagement, with some trade successes (RMB currency swap trading deal in 2013) but no real vision or ambition. Under Abbott, the ambiguity continued. The overwhelming impression of the last decade of China-Australia government relations is a lack of coherence. Of course, policy makers might not want to pin themselves down with predetermined positions, particularly in a dynamic situation where things are often changing — but there is a lot of difference between allowing space for flexibility, and appearing to follow one course one day, and another the next with no holistic overarching narrative. This is compounded by the fact that across the different communities that are engaged in China there is a lack of a common language, leading to incoherence. Politicians need to take a position on this and show leadership. So far, they have been reluctant to do this, possibly because of the fear of antagonising or polarising the public further.

Q: Xi Jinping’s actions and words don’t really line up. He doesn’t seem to be following through on the commitment to giving the market a decisive role in the economy, but rather favouring large SOEs. He’s also embarked on a serious campaign to purify the Chinese Communist Party. Do you think his reform plans might be much much more conservative than we are really giving him credit for?

A: Current elite Chinese politicians do have a specific and very particular conceptual framework within which they see themselves and the world. It has proved challenging to really understand this by those outside it. This is largely because the language by which Chinese politicians convey this framework often sounds clunky, encumbered by the residue of former ideological positions on Marxism Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought which still linger and take up ideological space even though they sound alien in the modern Chinese economic and social context. In that sense, the current Chinese elite political position is conservative, and it constrains the space within which politicians can work. Xi Jinping is presented as a leader who has accrued huge powers since taking up his role as the General Secretary in 2012. But he works within a party elite, with party members, and then a country context in which there are dense networks of vested political and business interests, and in which pressures come from all directions. In that sense, he is the servant of the Party, as much as the Party serves him. He has very limited policy space — he has not, for instance, fundamentally changed or challenged the Dengist paradigm of incremental development. The one thing he has done has recalibrated China’s current policy position to accord more with its economic influence now and its need to create a more balanced, sustainable model. The ‘struggle’ (as it is called in Chinese) against corruption which has been ongoing since 2013 shares this ambiguity under Xi — it can be seen partly as a political struggle, but also as an attempt to wean party officials off illicit profits at a time when growth is falling and the Party needs to seek new sources of legitimacy. Neither of these are contradictory or mutually exclusive. The problem is that Xi and his colleagues are trying to do too much too quickly. They have little room for manoeuvre. They are risk averse, rather than conservative. But the problem is that in this period of transition to a middle-income-level country, they have to take risks.

Q: How do you think the sovereignty questions in the South China Sea might be resolved? Is there a role there for other countries like Australia in finding a political solution?

A: Without a revision of what sovereignty and claims for sovereignty might mean, it is hard to see a short- to medium-term solution to the current complex constellation of problems in the South China Sea. The best outcome might be sustainable status quo. But of course, for China in particular, but for many of the other contending countries in this space, there is a real issue of them seeking validation and legitimacy domestically by being tough on their neighbours, ratcheting up nationalist positions and rhetoric, with the concomitant chance that this will lead to miscalculations and mistakes, perhaps even real conflict. Just the chance this might happen means that it is unlikely that the US in particular can keep out of involvement in this issue — the area covered by the contested territories are logistically too important. While China’s frustration about having its strategic space circumscribed is understandable, the haste with which it has been constructing artificial islands in the last few years indicates a high level of frustration, but also risk-taking behaviour that might be counter productive. Consensus on seeking international mediation and arbitration through international law in the long term would be the best outcome. The US ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) would be an important symbolic step forward. But this is an issue that, like Deng Xiaoping said in the 1980s, needs to be pushed into the future, because there is no consensual easy solution available at the moment.

Q: What do you think China’s strategic goals are for the neighbourhood? Does ‘shared destiny’ [that is, the ‘community of shared destiny’ 命运共同体, is a concept promoted by Xi Jinping in relation to Asia and the Pacific and more broadly; it is also the theme of the 2014 China Story Yearbook] mean everyone sharing China’s destiny?

A: I think China wants strategic space around its water borders concomitant with its economic size and influence now. It is seeking status. At the moment, it is constructing a common space via policies like the ‘One Belt, One Road’ for economic interaction, and deeper commitment between China and its most immediate neighbours. But there is a clear lack of an accompanying common concept of security. Economic dependence and trying to buy loyalty from other countries will only achieve skin-deep links. The issue is that China’s political values and model are not wildly attractive to neighbours like India, countries in Central Asia, Japan, or Mongolia. They do not see the world in security terms in the same way. It is hard to see without a change in political model how China can surmount this.

Q: How can countries like Australia promote universal values in China? Do you think they try? Do you think they should try?

A: Thirty-five years of reform in China in the economic realm have created a more complex polity. But the attitude for instance of some when China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001 that it would lead to a country becoming politically more like multi-party democratic systems proved naïve. China has changed socially and politically since 1978, in some very profound ways, but it has taken a more complex trajectory, one that has resisted the easy narratives which ‘engagement for positive change’ from some in the EU, US or elsewhere wanted to see. The criticisms of ‘univeralist values’ [普世价值] currently being made in China caricature positions outside the country, and grant a completeness and confidence to an entity simplistically designated as ‘the West’, which it does not actually have. Fundamentally, challenges of justice, public participation in decision making, dealing with inequality and inequity are challenges across political systems. And talking at this functional level is something governments like that of Australia should do with China. In particular, Australia is favourably placed because it is neither tainted by the history of colonialism in China like the UK or other European powers, or with the image of being a zealously proselytising power like the US, trying to remake the world in its own image. Because of this, Australia can, via academics and other communities, have discussions on issues like human rights, ethnic minority issues, and political reform in ways that others cannot. More should be done here — but on a functional level, avoiding the politicisation of the values debate that has prevailed before.

Q: Are you concerned about the impact a rising China will have on global governance? Do you think there is still life in the ‘responsible stakeholder’ idea?

A: On the whole, I think incrementally China will be changed by its evolving global role. On the whole, the main issue is not so much how China relates to the world, but how it handles its own intrinsic sources of instability. The dominant narrative of the last three decades has been a China that has been much less fractious in terms of its relations with the outside world (in the Maoist period, it had battles over Korea, with India in 1963, Russia in 1969 and Vietnam just after Mao died in 1979). It has relied on a benign international environment while it has sought to develop its economy and become a major power. One of the great unknowns for the global future is the political model China might have in the next decade or so. Everyone, even in China, knows there must be political reform, even if they do not talk about using a multi-party system. But they do not know where this process might lead. With Australia, we broadly know that in ten or twenty years its political model is unlikely to change from that in place today. With China, we have no such certainty. The ironic thing is that for Australia and other democracies, their trading and diplomatic links with China have made them stakeholders in the current system, despite plenty of reservations about one-party rule. Remove the Communist Party, and risk and uncertainty increase rapidly in China. So for us, as well as for Chinese themselves, the strategic question is just how far one-party rule delivers a sustainable, balanced, stakeholder country, and at what point China’s political structure is an impediment to this. That is a huge, complex question, and one even the most confident would be very brave indeed to hazard a guessestimate about today.