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China and the Great Asia Project II: Suffering Chinese burns


Graeme Dobell

18 November 2010 10:27

One of the many reasons the Canberra consensus on China is so strong is that both sides of politics have suffered similar diplomatic pains and carry matching scars.

Labor and the Coalition know the hard reality of getting the Chinese burns: being on the receiving end of Beijing's version of diplomatic torture by a thousand cuts. In its first year in office, the Howard Government was tested when Beijing gave it a sustained hammering. The Rudd Labor Government, in its second year, faced a similar, concerted three-month thumping. China has demonstrated its willingness to give a fresh leader in Canberra a good kicking.

This serves several purposes. Immediate differences are highlighted and the new government is given painful instruction about where the no–go areas are. Beijing can test to see if easy concessions can be extracted from an inexperienced cabinet.

Labor and the Coalition have been taught that saying 'Boo' to China can be costly. Saying 'No' can cause real diplomatic pain. Sometimes the pain has to be risked, but the old scars can tweak the judgement calculus. Beyond the polity, the Oz populace is starting to understand China's ability to kick as well as kiss, the sour that goes with the sweet. The sweet and sour understanding doesn't quite divide Canberra as it does Washington into the warring camps of panda huggers and dragon slayers. The Canberra consensus creates a political unity ticket where everybody is happy to be an overt panda hugger.

In the private, dark moments, the negative perspective is more one of dragon dread than dragon slaying. And that dread is why the alliance is now as much about China as it is about the US.

One of the clearest views of Labor's Chinese burns was in the joint Australia–China joint statement which negotiated a ceasefire to Beijing's diplomatic war in 2009. We might have to wait for the Rudd memoirs for a full accounting of what was needed to get that ceasefire, but the insider account of the previous 1996 experience is to hand.

John Howard's memoirs are notable for those moments when the former Prime Minister concedes some degree of error. On China, he sets out the missteps that trampled on Beijing's toes. Here is how Howard launches into a half–page recitation of errors that put the relationship into 'deep freeze' in August/September 1996, and caused a ban on visits to China by Australian ministers:

Relations between the Howard Government and China got off to a rocky start. The Taiwan Straits flare up of 1996, involving both the US and China displaying military might in those waters, caught Australia unprepared. Quite properly, we supported the Clinton Administration's position, but did it in a way which exacerbated Chinese sensitivities.

In politics as played by John Howard, being unprepared is a major sin for a minister, much less a government. And when Howard tramples on anybody's sensitivities, he always wants to do it deliberately, not by accident. Count that as a substantial version of 'Oops'. 

Howard describes his new Cabinet going on to push a series of Beijing hot buttons almost without noticing — visits to and from Taiwan, meeting the Dalai Lama, suspending soft loans to China —   pushing relations from 'bad to worse'. The political lesson to take from these Howard and Rudd experiences is that any Australian government suffering a bout of Chinese burns will never get public sympathy from the other side of politics. In 1996, the Labor Opposition was as vigorous as the Chinese in lashing the mishandling of the relationship by the Howard Government. In 2009, the Liberal Opposition was equally vocal in proclaiming Labor as duds and duffers who'd stuffed up on China. Even if it is China doing the lashing, any opposition worth its salt will sprinkle that salt into the wounds.The shared scar–tissue means there might be some private Labor–Coalition understanding of the reality of dealing with China, but that does not produce public support when Beijing is applying burns. Much easier to score points by arguing the government is just failing to hug the panda in the correct manner.

The Australian cabinet that says 'Boo' or 'No' to China can expect biffo in the House of Representatives. That is the way the game is played, and it's always a matter of interpretation to define the cause of the diplomatic fireworks. The Opposition sees a stuff up. The Government proclaims a matter of principle. As Howard concedes, separate issues can build and create a pattern where none was intended. He lists a series of cases where Australia was 'fully within our rights' or 'it was unreasonable of the Chinese'.

The ultimate moment comes when Australia has to acknowledge China's prerogatives. My ears always pricked when, over the later years of his reign, Howard talked about China's'prerogatives'. The Prime Minister used the word because it expressed exactly what he meant, drawing on the hard lessons delivered by Chinese burns. Over the course of the last decade, the purview of those prerogatives has broadened.

Much of the interest in Howard's telling of the China story is that he, too, had to find his own version of a Third Way. Howard devotes a chapter to China before dealing with the rest of Asia in the following chapter. That is a fair rendering of the hierarchy in Canberra's Great Asia Project.

Breaking the Asia discussion into these two chapters means Howard is able to skirt the deep impact China had on the broader Asia assumptions he brought to office. In the Asia chapter, Howard claims he was able to live out his belief that Australia does not have to choose between her geography and her history.

Yet his China account gives examples where Asia's rising power was able to take bites out of Australia's historical positions. The sacrifices Howard offered to China's prerogatives were not what he would see as core policy concerns. But Howard's own account shows how values sometimes had to shift a bit to make room for China's different interests.

The concession that Howard portrays as an easy choice was the shift to create a bilateral human rights dialogue with Beijing, thus allowing Australia to step back from pursuing China over human rights in the United Nations.

The dance that took Howard much closer to the history/values end of the scale was the way Beijing fed the Howard government through the wringer in its first year in office. Those Chinese burns can be painful.

Photo by Flickr user williamcho, used under a Creative Commons licence.