Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 11:29 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 11:29 | SYDNEY

China: Our failure of imagination


Hugh White

3 July 2012 12:25

The fresh perspective in Linda Jakobson's excellent Policy Brief on managing our relations with China brings out all kinds of things that have escaped my attention but now seem clear, and very important. 

Our relationship with China is now arguably more important to us than any relationship Australia has ever had with any country other than the UK and US, and yet our approach to developing the relationship has not changed for decades. In fact, as Linda shows, China gets less political and policy energy today than it did ten or twenty or even thirty years ago.

How could this be? I think the roots of our policy paralysis go deeper than Canberra's indolence or inattention. They go all the way down to our inability to imagine a relationship with a country as powerful as China which is not an Anglo Saxon ally. 

Much of the debate hitherto about Australia's relationship with China has proceeded on the assumption that this is a matter which Australia will decide. In his Lowy essay last year, Alan Dupont said Australians need to decide what we want from the relationship. That is an important question, but it is much less important than the other question: what does China want?

Many Australians will no doubt think it craven to suggest that this is a central question in the future of our relationship with China. That just shows how little we understand the realities of power. We are neophytes in this because for 234 years we have been on the side of the rich and powerful against the relatively poor and weak. Now our position is much more complex. To a degree greater than we have ever known, the boot is on the other foot. 

That is why the questions Linda poses are so hard. We lack a relationship of political trust with China not only because we do not have the right forums and meetings, but because we fundamentally do not accept China's view of its strategic and political role in Asia. John Howard got away with sweeping this under the carpet, but his model for managing the relationship, and for balancing it with our alliance with Washington, is over a decade old now. It is not working any more.

Photo by Flickr user bildungsr0man.