Change in the Indo Pacific resulting from the rise of China is challenging the status quo. China’s authoritative communist government, its presence as an economic competitor and its military power tells only part of the story. China as a market signals its true global significance. Stepping back or separating from that market threatens Australia’s future growth and standard of living enabling other nations, even our allies, to quickly grasp any economic opportunity we vacate. The best interests of both China and Australia are served by a friendly and mutually supportive engagement, something the people of both countries would hope their governments work towards.
China was a particularly important part of our governments thinking on economic transformation, international engagement, student attraction and investment and trade. Important strides to reorient both business and government towards the global opportunity were taken. Throughout this effort the SA Government received excellent support from AUSTRADE and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Ambassadors and representatives around the world. Federal Trade Minister Andrew Robb a tireless worker with a grand vision for free trade agreements born of a ‘Team Australia’ approach was particularly supportive of the efforts of the States and he hosted regular portfolio meetings of Federal and State Ministers to coordinate the national effort. In line with South Australia’s China strategy, AFL Club Port Adelaide established its fixture in Shanghai, SA Arts and cultural groups went outbound and overseas sister state arts groups came to SA.
While big business gets on with trading with China requiring little help from government beyond favourable tax laws, infrastructure and free trade agreements, small to medium size businesses need considerable help. State governments each have ministers, departments and millions of dollars invested on practical programmes to help local businesses to do business overseas. The Australian states maintain dozens of overseas offices some of which resemble small embassies busily at work on sister state relationships and trade missions. In effect the states hold up half the sky on Australia’s trade effort and no national trade strategy will work without a ‘Team Australia’ approach.
As Trade and Investment Minister from 2014 to 2018, I ensured that South Australia ran one of the biggest and most successful China engagement strategies coming out of Australia which functioned business to business, public servant to public servant and minister to minister. Widely regarded by partners Austrade and DFAT as setting the gold standard, the Weatherill government built the Shandong relationship to its strongest point with extraordinary benefits to wine makers, small businesses, food producers and educators across the state. Most importantly the culture of government changed to become pro trade and investment.
But trade and economic cooperation with China has been confounded by a newly assertive Beijing. The US, Australia and other neighbours have reacted to the emergence of a more aggressive China under President Xi Jinping by overseeing a savage deterioration in bilateral and multi-lateral relationships. Some Australian ministers, ex ministers and senior public servants now talk publicly of the ‘drums of war’, assuming a future war would look like the last world war comprising expeditionary air, sea and land forces fighting far from home. Prime Minister Morrison has said the times have the feel of the 1930’s about them. He’s wrong. The international response to the inevitable and unstoppable rise of China more accurately has the feel of 1913, when through idle stupidity, jingoistic chest thumping and political stupidity the world hurled itself almost unwittingly into a disaster from which we are still recovering. All sides in the conversation need to rethink their positions.
A cyber war with China alone might destroy Australia’s banking system, its power grid, logistics, air and sea travel and all communications thus destroying our economy for months or years and with that almost every Australian job and company. Simple military actions in which few if any shots are fired could cut off the nations fuel supply grinding the nation to a halt. The combined impact of these measures could be to deliver a new stone age to the Australian economy. Then there are the long-range missiles and nuclear weapons! In war, all sides lose.
Any Australian politician talking of the prospects of a war with China might like to explain to the Australian people what the next war might look like and how it would impact them, their families and livelihoods. Australians were encouraged into WW 1 and WW2 because others had gone to war and wanted us along on the journey. I doubt if Australian families will be up for a third world war. The national conversation on China must balance the views of the defence and intelligence community with those of the business sector, workers and families. Governments in both countries need to act with measured caution and goodwill.
The generation of Australian leaders who can remember the depravations and suffering of the great depression and the last world war are gone, but I came across leaders in both business and government in China on each visit who grew up starving during the Great Chinese Famine 1958-62 during which up to fifty-five million people starved to death. The current crop of Chinese leaders have been hardened by memories of what it was like to go hungry and to suffer great hardship. Both sides of the conversation need to reflect carefully on their relationships. War talk generally emanates from people who have not lived through one. It belongs in a past era.
The only future pathway for diplomacy in a world in which China is a major economic powerhouse is one of peace, prosperity, trade and economic cooperation. Through investment in defence, our sovereign economic capabilities and by way of strategic alliances which balance power, Australia must remain strong and confident enough not to be threatened by anyone or by change in our region, but clever enough to understand that coexistence with China not containment is the way forward. We should be very careful about being drawn into agendas which do not line up with our own key national interests.
Australia needs national leaders capable of statesmanship with the intellect of a Henry Kissinger and the diplomatic genius of a Konrad Adenauer. New people need to step forward and the Australian political system must make way for them. Getting to the right position should preoccupy the minds of leaders in both Beijing and Canberra. My four years as a Trade and Investment Minister and dozens of trips to China canvassing the years of this deterioration in the China Australia relationship impressed on me that the Commonwealth and the states within our federation will need to work together if we are to succeed in building a prosperous and mutually beneficial relationship between our two countries. Important partners in forging understanding and cooperation between China and Australia will be the Australian Chinese community who deserve hearty and full support from their fellow Australians.