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Australia-China Relations and the challenge for Chinese Australians

Opening Keynote Address to Chinese Community Council of Australia Conference on Australia-China Relationship: Our Current Challenges, Melbourne, 18 August 2018

It is a great pleasure and privilege to have been invited to address this important conference of Chinese Australian community leaders. Your timing could hardly be better given the enormous attention the overall Australia-China relationship, the position of Chinese Australians and the whole future of Australian multiculturalism have been getting in recent public debate.

I have been for the whole of my public life – which, I’m rather alarmed to acknowledge, now stretches back over fifty years! – a strong advocate for a genuinely multicultural Australia, and one which reflects, in particular, the reality of our Asian geography rather than our European history. The very first article I ever published in a mainstream, non-student magazine, back in 1972, was titled ‘The Browning of Australia’, arguing passionately for our multicultural society to evolve to the stage where the mainstream national skin colour was no longer pinky-white.

To an extraordinary extent that dream for which I argued, and which then seemed so fanciful, is now becoming a reality. It is now the case that 28 per cent of our people were born overseas – more than Canada with 21 per cent, and double the percentage in the United States. And the 2016 Census shows that for the first time in our history, the majority of residents who were born overseas, 2 ½ million of them, come from Asia – with China, India and the Philippines now the main countries of origin– dislodging Europe as the dominant source. We are now, as George Megalogenis describes it, no longer an Anglo-European country but a Eurasian one.

There are some in our community who are alarmed about this development, and just cannot handle the reality that our country is no longer the largely mono-ethnic, mono-cultural ‘White Australia’ that so many political leaders on all sides fought so hard for so many decades to preserve. When that sentiment was expressed in the most ugly, ignorant and offensive way in the maiden speech of the hitherto completely and deservedly obscure Senator Anning earlier this week, it was one of the worst moments in our recent parliamentary history.

But it was one of the best moments in our parliamentary history when members on all sides of both chambers united the next day in condemning what had been said, and unanimously re-endorsing the resolution initiated by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1988 that ‘whatever criteria are applied by Australian Governments in exercising their sovereign right to determine the composition of the immigration intake, race, faith or ethnic origin shall never, explicitly or implicitly, be among them’.

I only hope that – as Waleed Aly expressed it in The Age yesterday –it wasn’t just the use of the incandescently inflammatory phrase ‘final solution’ that generated the outrage here, and that our parliamentarians on all sides will be equally keen to call out and condemn racist pandering and dog-whistling, which has become all too unhappily common among media and political fringe-dwellers, when it occurs again without that particular language being employed.

Chinese Australians make up a hugely significant component of our non-Anglo, non-European, multicultural Australia, whether they be recent arrivals or from families living among us for many generations – and this year we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the first recorded Chinese born settler in Australia, Mak Sai Ying, who arrived in 1818. The figures speak for themselves: 1.2 million Australians (5.6 per cent of the overall population) have Chinese ancestry, whether from the mainland PRC, or from forebears living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia or elsewhere in South East Asia or the wider world. Net migration is outpacing births in our population growth and people born in China are now the largest single group of migrants, accounting for 15.8 per cent of the total: as our population hit the 25 million mark last week, the 25th million Australian was most likely to have been a young female Chinese student or skilled worker. Of the more than 550,000 international students now in Australia, 31 per cent of them – around 170,000 – come from China, with 125,000 in our universities, making a huge contribution to their financial viability.

And Chinese Australians are not only present among us in large numbers: you already make a fantastically valuable contribution to our society, particularly in business and the professions – although not yet, it has to be acknowledged, and this is a matter of concern, in the public sector, politics or the media on the scale your numbers, high levels of educational attainment and other talents, and socio-economic standing in the wider community should be producing. What I think is unarguably true for the future is that this community of yours is going to become an ever more indispensably valuable resource as we all come to terms with the reality that the rest of the 21st century is not only going to be the Asian century, but very much the Chinese century.

Take language competence for a start: while Australian born Chinese usually speak English as their first language, more than 900,000 Chinese Australians speak Mandarin, Cantonese or some other dialect at home. While it is important for Australians of non-Asian origin to learn Chinese and other Asian languages at school or university – if for no other reason than the wider cultural exposure that comes with any decent language teaching – we should not be overly anxious at the paucity of really fluent speakers those programs are now producing. We have already, right in our midst, a massive pool of native-language speakers, a great many of them highly trained professionals, from whom we can draw all the linguistically-skilled and culturally sensitive talent we need for our diplomatic, business, professional and academic outreach in China and our wider region.

When I think of the kind of contribution Chinese Australians can make to Australia’s future, I need look no further than my own small office. Working alongside me as Chancellor to support the Australian National University’s presence in Melbourne, I have Jieh-Yung Lo – whose grandparents went to Vietnam from Southern China, and whose parents came as refugees to Australia from Saigon via Malaysia in 1978; who has maintained his Chinese cultural identity, speaking Cantonese and Mandarin (and uncompromisingly maintaining his very non-Anglo given name, which he has to spell out to people half a dozen times a day); but is as Aussie as I am in his commitment to this country and his local cultural identity (although he could have shown better judgement in choosing which football team to support!). Already, at the ripe old age of 33, he has had since his graduation from Melbourne University a varied and productive career in local government, and as a policy officer in the public service and non-government organizations like CEDA; and has worked as a consultant to put together the sister-city relationship between Hobart and Xi’an. He is very active in political and community affairs, writes and publishes frequently about the Chinese Australian experience, and has a great career ahead of him.

But despite the fact that there are so many Jieh-Yungs (and Tsebin Tchens and Hong Lims) in this community, you will all be acutely aware that the present situation for Chinese Australians is less comfortable than it has been for a long time. The spectacular rise of China, accompanied as it has been by a recently accelerating decline in the authority and credibility of the United States, has changed the focus from what has gone right with China – including hauling more than 800 million people out of poverty in just a few decades, and generating an economic boom from which there has been no greater beneficiary around the world than Australia – to what could go wrong. Concerns about China’s influence in this and other countries in the region – as ill-founded or exaggerated as many of them might be – have created a situation where Chinese Australians are coming under scrutiny and suspicion, to the extent in some cases even of being thought to be potential fifth-columnists, in a way we simply have not seen before, and in a way in which all of us here find profoundly distressing.

An alarming further development, reported just yesterday in The Age, is that there has been a dramatic recent reduction in the number of Chinese-born residents being granted Australian citizenship. During the first eight months of the 2017-18 financial year, only some 1500 applications had been granted compared with 6500 in 2016-17. While there has been a huge blowout generally – 425 per cent – in the backlog of citizenship applications since Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister, it seems from the reported figures that British, Indian and South African approval rates have all marginally increased in the period in question, while Chinese approval rates have gone down. It is hard to believe that this development, if reported accurately, has nothing at all to do with the China-Australia tensions of the last two years and growing suspicion in that context about the commitment of Chinese Australians to this country. It will be interesting to hear what the Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs has to say on this subject when he addresses this conference.

A bleak view is that we may be condemned to seeing some of the concern about Chinese Australians’ commitment hovering around, at least on the fringes of public debate, as long as it takes to become obvious that China is no more likely to become a military threat to Australia than Italy or Greece or India, and that in that context Chinese Australian are no more likely to become fifth-columnists than Italian Australians or Greek Australians or Indian Australians. I think it will eventually become obvious, if it is not already, that today’s and tomorrow’s world is very different to that of the middle of the last century, when it was still possible for powers like Germany and Japan to believe that the benefits of waging aggressive territory-expanding war could outweigh the costs.

While it no doubt remains the case that countries like Australia will go on building our defence capability on the assumption that others may possibly become irrational, no political leader of any major power could possibly make a rational decision today to go to war against any other significant power: with today’s technology, even leaving aside nuclear weapons, the human costs are incalculably large, and with today’s globalized interdependence the economic benefits are impossibly slim. Whatever concerns we may legitimately have about Chinese overreach externally – and I will come back to this – I don’t see the Chinese leadership now and into the future as an exception. But it may take some time for some in Australia, as elsewhere, to become persuaded of that.

The more immediate concern we all have is that Chinese Australians become collateral damage in an environment of bad bilateral relations, of the kind we have been experiencing since early 2017. Since Prime Minister Turnbull’s University of NSW speech on 7 August it may be that we can be confident that the worst storms have passed, and that the days of Beijing practising ‘doghouse diplomacy’ – declining to host ministerial visits, forcing the cancellation of trade fairs, threatening to stop students coming here and so on – are now over. But it is not yet completely clear that we are out of the woods, or what price we will have to pay to stay there, so it is important that we understand what went wrong, and why, and explore what might be necessary to keep our relationship on a sustainably positive path in future – and in the process keep our Chinese Australians out of the collateral damage firing line.

Australia-China relations have been in the freezer before, notably in 1949-72 (before recognition), in 1989-91 (post-Tiananmen), in 1996 (with John Howard seen as calling for containment in the context of Taiwan) and in 2008-9 (beginning with Kevin Rudd’s ‘zhengyou’ speech at PKU, with its unwelcome observation that a true friend is critical friend). Each such period has passed when both sides have decided to move on, seeing larger benefits for both sides in constructive relationship. What has made the 2017-18 difficult to escape is that it has been fed by at least four distinct causes.

First, there were a series of statements by senior Coalition government figures seen as insensitive, disrespectful, involving megaphone diplomacy or all of the above. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in Singapore March 2017 that China would not fully realise its potential until it became a democracy. Prime Malcolm Turnbull in December 2017, at the time of introducing new foreign interference and espionage legislation, said that – deliberately using Mao’s canonical phrase that Australia had ‘stood up’ against outside efforts to interfere in our internal affairs. The then Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce in January 2018, commenting on the US National Security Strategy identifying China as a ‘strategic competitor’, said that it had the capacity to ‘overrun’ Australia. And also in January 2018, Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fieravanti-Wells accused China of funding ‘useless’ infrastructure projects and ‘roads that go nowhere’ in the Pacific.

I don’t for a moment think we should ever be excessively deferential in our foreign policy – not least in relation to China, whose statecraft, as Kevin Rudd rightly put it last week, ‘respects consistency and strength and is utterly contemptuous of weakness’. But it has always been the case in international relations that words are bullets, and one has to be particularly careful how one uses them – particularly publicly, and especially so in Asia where face is always so culturally important. It seems that Mr Turnbull has at last learned this lesson: his language at UNSW was appropriately emollient, and the Chinese side reacted accordingly. Kevin Rudd described it as a ‘humiliating backdown’ and ‘grovelling mea culpa’ but I think that is overly harsh: given the extent to which the Government had dug itself into a hole with its own ill-considered words it needed some new words to start digging itself out.

The second factor in the freeze has been the tumultuous debate over alleged Chinese undue influence and interference in Australian domestic politics and higher education, which inevitably generated a very negative reaction from Beijing. That debate was initiated by a Fairfax Media/Australian Broadcasting Corporation investigation in June 2017 and fuelled subsequently by media articles by former prime ministerial adviser John Garnaut and the book ‘Silent Invasion’ Clive Hamilton, not to mention some apparent backroom contributions from ASIO and the Australian intelligence community, all purporting to describe how Communist Party of China (CPC) organs like the United Front Work Department were infiltrating Australian institutions, including with the help of high-profile Chinese-Australian political donors and businessmen Chau Chak Wing and Huang Xiangmo.

The smoke here was not entirely without fire, with the exposure in particular of Senator Sam Dastyari’s naivete in trading party donations for policy support, but there has been much more speculation than hard evidence when it comes to most of the other claims of undue influence, for example in the university sector in relation to influence on curricula, pressure on lecturers, and intimidation of and by PRC students, and perhaps of Chinese Australians as well.

That said, it was legitimate for the Australian Parliament this year to enact legislation, as other countries have done, strengthening protections against interference by other governments general, including creating a register for individuals or entities undertaking activities on behalf of “foreign principals’ and introducing new offences including the theft of trade secrets on behalf of a foreign government. China remains unhappy about the way in which media and public commentary constantly singled out China in the debate, even if the legislation itself did not, but seems now prepared to not let this legislation be a continuing irritant in the bilateral relationship, but it does remain unhappy about the way in which media and public commentary constantly singled out China in the debate.

A more lasting negative impact might be on Chinese Australians. You in the leadership of the Chinese Community Council of Australia rightly warned that the discussions on Chinese influence and the new laws have unleashed, as you put it, ‘eerie echoes of community scapegoating’ and the ‘revival of suspicion’ towards Chinese Australians, referring to anti-Chinese sentiment in the early parts of the 20th Century and the White Australia Policy. The worry of all of us is that even if the bilateral wounds heal reasonably quickly, those of the community may take much longer.

The third factor contributing to the freeze has been Chinese concern that Australia is overreacting to perceived security risks from Chinese investment and other commercial activity. While the issue has arisen previously around transport and communications infrastructure – including the Port of Darwin and NSW power lines – the really cutting edge continues to be the future of Huawei. The telecommunications giant was banned from participating in the National Broadband Network in 2013, and discussions are currently underway within the Australian Government regarding its exclusion from participating in Australia’s 5G network. Huawei insists – as its Australian board member John Brumby will no doubt make clear here – that it is a private employee-owned company and operates in line with Australian regulation and laws, as it does elsewhere. But Australian national security agencies remain concerned about the possible technical vulnerability of the whole system, in the context of Chinese laws which allow Beijing to order businesses to ‘support, cooperate with and collaborate in national intelligence work’.

The best answer to Chinese hostility to Australia and others making security-based judgments barring Chinese investment has always been to ask whether China itself would accept a comparable investment in sensitive sectors from a US or other foreign company. If it manifestly would not, it is hard for the indignation to be sustained. But as Jennifer Hewett argued in yesterday’s Australian Financial Review, a very public rebuff to Huawei, going further than countries like the UK and Canada have done, would run the risk of resetting the reset that the recent Turnbull speech seems to have accomplished. This story still has some distance to run.

The remaining factor contributing to the bilateral freeze since early 2017 has been differences over foreign policy, with Australia seen to be jumping excessively to US tunes – not unusual in the past but perhaps seen as less understandable in the context of the new Trump administration’s highly erratic behaviour in the region. We have certainly been among the firmest opponents – at least rhetorically – of China’s overreaching claims and militarising activity in the South China Sea in defiance of the ruling in 2016 of The Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration, which led to Chinese state-run media called Australia a paper cat. We have joined in taking some steps to give new life to the ‘Quad’ – the US/India/Japan/Australia grouping seen by China as a polarising alliance dedicated to China’s containment, although this has not yet developed further than four-way talks between each country’s admirals and officials, with India remaining reluctant to have Australia join its annual Malabar naval exercise with the US and Japan. And we have expressed some concern about the geostrategic implications of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, particularly in its possible reach into the South Pacific, reinforcing concerns that China is has been using its aid program for political advantage there.

None of these issues need be showstoppers for cordial future bilateral relations, but each of them needs to be handled carefully. We can best reinforce our position in the Pacific by lifting our own game rather than overtly trying to undermine China’s, which has not been as extensive or intrusive as sometimes painted. We should recognise the essential legitimacy of the scale and ambition of the Belt and Road Initiative, being a little less anxious about its regional security implications, and prepared – with appropriate commercial caution – to be an active participant in the enterprise, as the Government now seems to be, with the Prime Minister saying in his 7 August that we would look forward to working with China on projects ‘where. Assessing them on their merits, we conclude they’re consistent with our objectives, standards and priorities.’

In relation to the Quad, while it is no bad thing for China to get the message that overreaching behaviour will be met with pushback, it would be prudent for this to be characterised by its participants not as a grand new strategic alliance, but rather as a mechanism for greater working level foreign and security policy dialogue and military-to-military interaction in a newly uncertain environment.

The most difficult issue to handle is the South China Sea, where China’s overreach has been visible, and troubling to many countries in the region. While Beijing manifestly does not want to provoke violent conflict anywhere, it is clearly intent on recreating as much of its historical hegemonic, tributary relationship with its southern neighbours as it can get away with, and it is important in this context that – if that overreach continues, and diplomatic efforts currently being renewed to smooth the waters with an agreed ASEAN-China maritime Code of Conduct make little progress – there be some pushback. I would support that in the form of so-called freedom of navigation exercises in the contested waters, preferably not alongside the United States but rather the key regional players Indonesia and Vietnam.

A more positive, and I suspect potentially most productive, way of restoring some real, lasting mutual respect into the Australia-China relationship, would be for Australia to more overtly accept the legitimacy of China’s demand to be now not just a rule-taker but a participant in global rule-making. And in that context we should aim to work much more closely with China on the whole range of global and regional public goods issues – from climate change to arms control, from terrorism to health pandemics, from peace-keeping to responding to mass atrocity crimes – on which Beijing has in recent times been playing a more interested and constructive role than has generally been recognised.

The critical point – and I am glad to see last year’s Foreign Policy White Paper spelling this out fairly clearly – is that Australia needs to approach our relationship with China in a spirit of multi-dimensional engagement. We should be trying to build mutually beneficial connections at multiple levels, not just see the country as a one-dimensional economic partner, crucial for our prosperity but to be treated warily and confrontationally on anything to do with security issues in the hope and expectation, almost certainly now misguided, that the US will do the heavy lifting for us on that front. None of this means becoming Beijing’s patsy, any more than we should be Washington’s: we should not hold back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values and, as I have said, we should be prepared to push back when China overreaches externally. But we should be looking to build a new maturity, and a new complexity, into our relationship.

My hope and expectation is that if we can do this we can put the troubles of the last two years behind us. The signs are already there that the wider community is not nearly as concerned about China as a threat or source of unacceptable influence and interference as some, including those in our security and intelligence community, would like us to believe. The Lowy Institute Poll 2018 found that more than eight in ten (82 per cent) Australians see China as ‘more of an economic partner’ than a ‘military threat’ (up three points since 2017). Despite all the heated public debate about foreign interference in Australia’s political processes, we seem more concerned about Chinese investment than its influence, with only 41 per cent of Australians viewing foreign interference in our political processes as a ‘critical threat’. And just to round it out, the Lowy Poll found that many more Australians trusted President Xi Jinping to ‘do the right thing in global affairs’ over Donald Trump (43 per cent to 30 per cent)!

Putting the tensions of the last two years behind us will also go a long way to ensuring that the anxiety and discomfort that Chinese Australians have unquestionably been feeling in this difficult environment will not be repeated.

I have long believed that Australians generally are overwhelmingly characterised by an inherent decency, humanity and tolerance which is not in the slightest racist or inherently hostile to those whose background is not Anglo-European. Periodically, particularly in periods of economic anxiety or security anxiety, there may emerge signs in some quarters of cultural anxiety which translates in turn into some hostility towards those perceived to be outside the national mainstream.

But that said, the particular problems and sensitivities that can arise from time to time as a result of multiculturalism are hugely outweighed by the richness that cultural diversity has brought to Australia, and is seen by the overwhelming majority of Australians to have brought. And they are hugely outweighed by the impact that an ethnically and religiously diverse Australia has had on our attitudes and outlooks, our capacity to see and relate to the world in a very different way than used to be the case.

The crucial thing about multiculturalism is that it has given us not just a new outlook on the world, but new resources and capacity, a whole new human skill-base, with which to deal with it. And for the future of Australia there is simply no more important a contributor to that human skill-base than the community of Chinese Australians. Thank you for everything you have contributed in the past, and thank you for the wonderful contribution I am totally confident you are going to make to this new Eurasian country of ours in the future.