The testing times of Papa Joe
Living in the slums

China & Australia must agree to disagree


ADELAIDE - Thanks for the very balanced assessment in ‘Australia needs help with its China problem’.

It is important to put some perspective into a debate that tends to become fairly acrimonious at times.

So far as I can see, the only acceptable basis for a sensible relationship with China is one where we simply agree to disagree on some issues.

Whether this is acceptable to a China seeking to forcefully assert its will and dominance in its self-declared sphere of influence (being the whole of South East Asia at least) is an open question.

The Australian government appears to have dialled down the rhetoric on China quite noticeably over the last couple of months.

This is tacit recognition that it's earlier megaphone diplomacy on Covid-19 and other matters have been counterproductive.

One implication is that the government is finally listening to the experts in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who doubtless were cringing at the clumsy ineptitude of Scott Morrison as he, presumably, sought to align us more closely with the Trump regime.

I hope our diplomats are now engaging in a few behind the scenes meetings with their Chinese counterparts, with a ‘full and frank exchange of views’ taking place well outside the media spotlight.

We will never have a completely comfortable relationship with China but we and they have certain common interests that we ought to be able to pursue without letting disagreements on other issues get in the road.

While we can and should forego megaphone diplomacy, we cannot surrender our right to criticise what we see or understand to be inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour by the Chinese government.

Conversely, we can expect to be called out for our own policy inconsistencies (e.g., West Papua) or outright hypocrisy (asylum seekers) in some areas of significant internal political sensitivity.

We will just have to suck this up as part of the price to be paid for speaking our truth to power.

So, Wolf Warrior diplomacy notwithstanding, there is a way forward if there is a willingness on both sides to reset the relationship.

I note that some vaguely conciliatory noises are now coming from Chinese diplomats that may signal that such a reset is feasible.

My guess would be that the significant self-inflicted economic pain associated with China's decisions in relation to commodities like barley, wine, forestry products, meat and coal may be creating uncomfortable internal tensions.

Powerful as he is, Xi Jinping cannot entirely ignore such tensions.

The pragmatists inside the Chinese government may be arguing that the point has been forcefully made about what is acceptable behaviour from Australia (and others) and it is time to bring us in from the cold.

We should be reinforcing this idea by offering certain concessions, that is, agreeing to not resort to megaphone diplomacy to make criticisms without first having exhausted behind the scenes efforts to make our point.

As for Papua New Guinea, it has little power or influence that it can wield in relation to China.

If Australia can be dismissed by one Chinese spokesperson as merely an annoying mosquito, then I guess PNG is much further down the insect hierarchy.

Of course, the tiny mosquito carries with it malaria and other diseases so maybe this analogy was not the best possible choice.


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