NOOSA – When Bernard Yegiora recently published an essay on China’s relations with Australia and Papua New Guinea, some PNG Attitude readers were quick to criticise his views. Perfectly acceptable.
One reader was quick to criticise Bernard personally. Not acceptable, and I made clear my displeasure.
Bernard was, after all, articulating his version of PNG’s current policy on how its relationship with China is conducted.
The reaction of those readers who chose to comment taken as a whole was critical of China.
Now I want to take the next step of considering what Australia might do in the short term about its current dispute with a nation it has come to rely upon to a disproportionate extent.
I have no truck with Chinese president Xi Jinping’s brutal regime that has earned a deservedly dreadful reputation for its track record of oppression of minorities, corruption, arbitrary detention, curtailment of basic freedoms and cybercrime.
For a small power like Australia, whose major trading partner is China and whose greatest strategic ally is the United States, the times present a major problem.
Politico magazine’s editorial director for China, David Wertime, observed in April that the USA is seen by China as having lost cachet under the wretched Trump and in its stumbling response to the coronavirus.
These historic blunders, he says, will have lasting global and strategic consequences.
“The world is now seeing a preview of what life looks like with that check removed,” Wertime continues.
“Aggressive Chinese diplomats from Brussels to Chicago browbeating their hosts, global institutions adopting de facto Chinese leadership, and an increasingly exportable surveillance state.”
In our region we have witnessed greater Chinese expansion in commerce and development assistance, soft power initiatives that should not necessarily concern us.
But, beneath this activity, we perceive movement towards Chinese domination that must be abated if not stopped altogether.
So Australia’s response, I assume guided somewhat by the USA, has been to push back against China: sometimes materially (for example, by banning Huawei) but mostly rhetorically by resorting to ‘megaphone diplomacy’ or whispering sweet nothings to Taiwan.
The megaphone was taken up with enthusiasm by Australian government politicians early in 2020, seemingly without consideration of the consequences of attempting to bully or shame a country where the concept of ‘face’ (mianzi) is of such importance.
Mianzi is ‘dignity’ or ‘stature’ and to lose face is a terrible and humiliating experience to a person in Chinese culture, as it is in many cultures of Asia.
So the Chinese government, confident of its own power and requiring to project that power to realise its strategic goals, scrutinised the minnow Australia, understood how it could render a meaningful reactive hurt to these insults and, piece by piece, step by step, began to dismantle the import of many goods from Australia.
And as was intended, this is hurting Australia a lot. Further, if China leverages this response to include iron ore, it could throw the Australian economy into chaos and the country into a protracted recession.
Australia’s problem – which it has not yet managed to solve – is how to live in our region with a huge power which has its mind set on expansion while we retain our own sovereignty and contribute to the region’s ability to live on reasonable terms with the giant.
A hard task – which, as resorting to the megaphone has shown, our government has so far not displayed any ability to master.
This is where Papua New Guinea enters my discussion. And I do not need to reflect on his personal views to take seriously the essay by Bernard Yegiora, who wrote of how, since independence, PNG has methodically pursued a One China policy and “the principle of mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs”.
He also noted that “both countries are very careful not to interfere in a patronising way into the internal affairs of their bilateral partners which they understand would only strain their relationship”.
That is how PNG does it. And it has worked for PNG, so far. But relations between nations are often mercurial and, just like any country, PNG’s relationships are in a constant state of adjustment.
Now I want to look at another country in the region, culturally very close to Australia – New Zealand – and see how it gets on with China.
By 2018 the Chinese government had become increasingly annoyed about the direction New Zealand’s China policy was taking and relations between the two countries had seriously deteriorated.
But by February 2019, things were recovering and in April prime minister Jacinda Ardern visited Beijing after which the relationship had stabilised.
In an article in The Pacific Review, ‘Australia and New Zealand recalibrate their China policies’, Patrick Köllner tells how this was achieved.
“Unlike senior members of the Turnbull government in Australia, Ardern had very much shied away from any direct criticism of China,” Köllner explains.
“She assured Xi that China was a ‘valued partner’ and that its companies would not be discriminated against in New Zealand …. she said that all territorial issues in the region should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law.
“She stayed clear of accusations levelled explicitly or implicitly at China [and she] emphasised that New Zealand did not pick sides but pursued a ‘principled approach that is not about the relative position of any other nation, regardless of whether they are partners or allies.”
Köllner points out that Ardern’s taking charge of China policy did not completely reverse the previous policy that had so annoyed China but it re-stabilised ties and ‘put a floor under the relationship’.
Australia is left with a country to its north that, and I stand to be corrected if this is too blunt, goes along with China and a country to its east which has developed a satisfactory working relationship with China while underscoring its own independent position.
Such positions are not forever taken. There are no permanent fixes in relations between nations. Adjustments will need to be made depending upon the relativities and outcomes of the volatile China-USA relationship. Some of these adjustments will be seismic.
But there is never any point in yelling at China. It’s too big. It’s too powerful. And it’s mostly on the front foot these days.
Australia – as does every other country in the region and beyond – has to learn to live with China.
And develop a reasonable accommodation with it.
That’s the challenge our government faces and maybe some convivial and collegial discussions with wise heads from Papua New Guinea and New Zealand could help.