Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 17:16 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 17:16 | SYDNEY

China speaks to Oz – about everything


Graeme Dobell

31 May 2011 14:24

The official Chinese conversation with Australia can now easily range over the problems of university administration or middle class obesity to security in Asia and the remaking of multilateral institutions. All those topics got a run on Friday when China's Ambassador to Australia, Chen Yuming, fronted the microphone for one of the National Security Lectures being run by the University of Canberra.

As this column has been speaking of China from a range of Canberra perspectives, consider this some thoughts from the other side.The speech was a discussion of China's strategic orientation, how China will use its strength and whether it will become a threat. The simple answer from Chen was that China's central aim is 'peaceful development...for dozens of generations to come'.

The Ambassador pointed to the demographic pressures of an ageing population and used the familiar line about China's race to get rich before it gets old. Having passed Japan to become the world's second biggest economy, the new line in self-deprecation is that China is 'the poorest number two ever'. 

The Ambassador dismissed as 'unworthy and unnecessary' any concerns about China's military modernisation: 'China's development will never pose a threat to other countries. Our strategic orientation is to develop ourselves.'

So far, so familiar. What was notable was how a discussion hosted by Peter Leahy's National Security Institute actually darted off in all sorts of directions. The range of questions that Chen fielded suggests the breadth of a relationship which will celebrate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations next year. 

Money drives the dynamic. As Chen remarked, four decades ago, two-way trade between Australia and China was worth US$100 million; now it is US$88 billion. He also liked the statistic that exports to China are worth $10,000 for every Australian household. 

The Ambassador happily quoted the Lowy survey finding that three-quarters of Australians (75%) say China's growth has been good for Australia, although he neglected to mention one other finding:  44% of those surveyed say it is likely China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years. 

After the speech, the questions ranged over China's chances of becoming a low-carbon economy, nuclear power ambitions, rising manufacturing and inflation pressures, medical services as China confronts the diseases of affluence (the Ambassador lamented his blood pressure and cholesterol issues) and, of course, China's military modernisation. 

The final question on a new leader for the International Monetary Fund illustrated the scope of what Beijing and Canberra must discuss. In the calls to break the European monopoly on the IMF chair, Australia has lined up with China and other key G20 players like India, Brazil and South Africa. It's interesting, though, that China set the terms of the debate with its first comment.

On 17 May, the regular press conference of the Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing delivered this comment on the selection of next head of the IMF: 'We believe that the choice of senior executives of the IMF shall follow the principle of fairness, transparency and merit'. Beijing embraces transparency! All those pleas from the rest of the Asia Pacific about transparency in China's defence planning must be having some impact. (Irony alert.)

The day after Beijing spoke, at a press conference in Sweden, Kevin Rudd was still finding his way across the new terrain: 'The last debate we had at G20 level on changing the quota arrangements to the greater role of China and others means the IMF is no longer the state bridge to shall we say the 'Western economies', and we have a greater role [for the] Chinese and others'.

By May 20, at his following presser in Norway, Australia's Foreign Minister had caught the tide and was in full cry for the rights of non-Europeans to run the IMF, drawing on the merits of candidates from the Asia Pacific, or even Australia:

The first and only criteria should be merit. We want someone who is technically qualified with support from across the world, not from any particular region, but from across the world. Let's remember that the IMF has been given the responsibility by the G20 post the global financial crisis of mutual assessment of the macro economic performance of the major economies of the world in order to provide long term sustainable global growth. So what's our answer to your question? Merit. That must be the criteria. Geography must come second...On the question of regional orientation, it's important that we are mindful of the shifting global geo-economic realities. And the fact is that in the decades ahead, forty per cent of global GDP will come from the Asia Pacific region.

So, on the IMF, China's Ambassador didn't use the official line from Beijing. Instead, Chen quoted at length from that well-known statesman, K Rudd. Elegantly done.

Photo by Flickr user Zimmelino.