home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

The China Power Story

Launch of Golley, Javin, Farrelly & Strange (eds) China Story Yearbook: Power, (Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU, 2019), Melbourne, 1 May 2019

This seventh China Story Yearbook, this year on the theme of China’s power – hard, soft and sharp – and how it is being exercised, both externally and internally, continues the great tradition established in 2012 by the China in the World Centre’s founding father, Professor Geremie Barme.

The idea from the outset was to ensure that China’s story was not left to be told just by Beijing. Few countries have worked harder or more self-consciously at creating a national narrative. In 2013 the new Chinese party leader Xi Jinping himself declared it was important for China to “tell the China story well, and to broadcast it effectively”. And the China story that has been told by Xi ever since emphasises one particular narrative: one of modern struggle, achievement, national revival, in order to realise the “China Dream” of an economically, socially, politically, militarily and culturally revitalised Chinese nation, one no longer hiding its strength and biding its time, but asserting a strong and powerful role in the region and wider world.

All those engaged intellectually with China, and wrestling with the policy implications of its rise, and the current personal dominance of Xi Jinping, of course need to understand the official discourse and its historical and ideological underpinning. But to get a grip on larger Chinese realities, possibilities, uncertainties, and to gain insights into how the past and the present will sculpt the future, it is necessary to go well beyond simply a developing an ability to grasp party-state programs and formulations. This is what the China Story Yearbook has aimed from the outset to do, in attractively accessible format and jargon-free language.

This year, again, we have a multitude of China stories, told through a multitude of different voices and perspectives. Perhaps not as many different national – including Chinese national – perspectives as would be ideal, but certainly with many different discipline perspectives from the thirty-one different researchers, just over half of them from ANU, who have contributed to this volume.

And what a kaleidoscope of stories they tell – the external diplomatic positioning, both geo-strategic and geo-economic; the scale of the military build-up; the ever-present tensions over Taiwan; the growing international concern about the exercise of sharp-power influence; the dramatic technological advances and the global tensions they have been generating; the changing relative power of the state-owned enterprises and the private sector; the growing internal repression, most obviously in Xinjiang, and its implications for Chinese soft power; feminism’s struggle against a more assertive patriarchy; and much more.

There is a feast of material here, with plenty of interest and appeal for the broader reading public as well as its primary target audience – policymakers and those who influence them, the media and the business community. Jane Golley and her colleagues have once again succeeded admirably in their story-telling, and policymakers everywhere and all those simply interested in understanding what contemporary China is all about, are very much in their debt.

A number of the storylines in this ‘Power’ volume will be picked up in the panel discussion which follows. For me, as a former Foreign Minister and someone having a continuing modest involvement in conflict prevention and resolution, arms control and human rights issues, the major talking points thrown up by the book are how government policymakers, in Australia and elsewhere, should be reacting to China’s rapidly increasing military capability, foreign policy assertiveness, and internal intolerance.

On the external front, I have long argued that much of China’s behaviour, and military build-up, is no more than can and should be expected of a rapidly economically rising, hugely trade-dependent regional superpower wanting to flap its wings and reassert some of its historical greatness after two centuries of wounded pride – certainly wanting to buy some strategic space for itself, certainly wanting the military capacity to protect its economic lifelines, and wanting an influence in global policymaking consonant with its strength. The Thucydides Trap storyline is overdrawn. Thucydides did not say that war was inevitable between the rising Athens and established Sparta: it was a risk, not an inexorable trap.

The big question is whether we can take Xi Jinping at his word, when he says, as he constantly does, that China’s intentions are entirely peaceful and that any differences should always be resolved by dialogue rather than coercion. There is every reason to accept that, given that the costs to China itself of waging war would manifestly wildly exceed any possible gain. But when one also weighs in the balance the indifference to international law displayed by Beijing over the South China Sea, the intensity of Chinese feeling over Taiwan and the ever-present possibility of miscalculation in Taipei, and the continuing inability of many influential voices in the United States to accept anything other than primacy in Asia and all the miscalculations that can flow from that, it has to be acknowledged that the risk of major conflict with China in the years ahead, while very small, is certainly greater than zero.

That possibility, however small, is one that Australian policymakers have to prepare for, given that defence risk-planning must always be based on others’ capability, not presumed intent. And, moreover, when they have to do so in a context where our major traditional ally may be more capable of precipitating a war than being either able or willing to protect us from its consequences. Militarily – as Hugh White argues in compelling detail in his major forthcoming book, How to Defend Australia – we are just going to have to become more genuinely self-reliant, particularly in terms of maritime denial, than we have ever previously been, and that is going to involve some very painful political and budgetary choices.

I am personally optimistic that such new defence capability will never have to be used, but that will depend significantly on the deftness of our diplomacy. This will, for a start, have to focus much more than it has done in recent years on building very close and mutually understanding relationships with those Asian powers – especially India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea – which are collectively capable, with or without the US, of acting as a real counterweight to Chinese overreach.

And our diplomacy will also have to develop a more sophisticated and multi-dimensional approach to our relationship with China itself. 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.

In particular, as I have been arguing for some time, I think we should be exploring ways of working more closely with China on the whole range of global and regional public goods issues – from climate change to nuclear arms control, from terrorism to health pandemics, from peace-keeping to responding to mass atrocity crimes – on many of which issues China has in recent times been playing a more interested and constructive role than has generally been recognised (as is addressed in this book, for example, in the context of refugees). Some will say Xi Jinping’s rapid occupation of the climate space abdicated by the US, and rush, similarly, to champion the virtues of free trade, was just cynical opportunism, but I don’t think we should necessarily assume that: we should be out there exploring the options.

None of this means becoming Beijing’s patsy, any more than we should be Washington’s. We should be prepared to push back strongly, preferably in conjunction with our regional neighbours, when China overreaches, as it has in the South China Sea. We are entitled to make our own judgements (hopefully completely objective ones, not influenced by other agendas, or other countries’ agendas) about possible security risks to our basic infrastructure involved in accepting certain Chinese technology. We are entitled to protect our institutions from unacceptable kinds of influence (though hopefully again on the basis of real, rather than fanciful or wildly exaggerated, intrusion – and certainly not in any way which questions in any way the loyalty and commitment to this country of our large Chinese-Australian community, a huge asset for Australia’s Asian future).

And, as sensitive as it always is to address any issue which a country sees as an internal affair and no one else’s business, I have always believed in our entitlement, and indeed obligation, to make clear to China or anyone else our own commitment to democratic and human rights values – based not at all on them being Australian or Western values, but universal values, recognised as such in the UN Charter and multiple other international instruments and resolutions.

There is something more to our humanity and dignity than having our most obvious material needs efficiently met by those who govern us. Having agency, having autonomy, being judged by what we do than what we are, having the right to choose our governors and criticize them unreservedly, having the right to live our personal lives as we wish provided we cause no harm to others – these are what makes us human. Countries should be challenged when they do not honour these principles, as has manifestly been the case with China’s exercise of power in Xinjiang and in a number of the other internal contexts addressed in this book.

We should not be inhibited from making such challenges, in the form of both public and private diplomatic representations and raising issues in the appropriate international forums, just because they rarely bear immediate fruit. Being productive is the ideal, but there is no harm in being unproductive – what matters is to make the point that a country’s international standing, certainly any soft power it might hope to exert, is put at risk by human rights denying behaviour, and the more countries that make these points, and make them more often, the greater is the likelihood over time that they will strike home. To me the only constraint here is on activity which is counter-productive – making worse the situation of those you are trying to help – and it is the case that public, as distinct from private, challenges can certainly be just that.

These, anyway, are some of the thoughts this latest Yearbook have stimulated in me. Lots more readers will I am sure be stimulated in other ways by the large menu of issues and themes it has laid out. In this respect this seventh volume has amply fulfilled the expectations generated by its predecessors. So, in the hope that it will be followed by many more volumes of equally enlightening analysis and argument, I have much pleasure now in declaring the China Story Yearbook: Power duly launched.